What are the Physiological Effects of Alcoholism?

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : December 06, 
| 4 Sources

How do the physiological effects of alcoholism start? When you take a drink of alcohol, it goes directly into your stomach and from there, into your small intestine. Most of the alcohol gets absorbed in your small intestine (that’s where most of the nutrients in food you eat get absorbed, too).

If you eat some food with your alcohol, especially fatty food, that causes it to be absorbed more slowly. That’s why people usually get drunk faster on an empty stomach.

Alcohol, like many other drugs, is metabolized, or processed, in the liver. That explains some of the most common and damaging physiological effects of alcoholism, hepatitis (inflammation or swelling and irritation of the liver) and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).

Inflammation of the liver may get better if you quit drinking, but once your liver has become scarred, the scars won’t go away. If the liver is scarred badly enough, it can’t function anymore. If your liver is badly scarred, you will need a liver transplant in order to survive.

Some alcohol also goes to the brain, where it impacts the parts of the brain that control judgment, memory, movement, and speech. It likewise interferes with the brain’s communication route, and could affect how your brain transmits and processes information. That’s why drunk people sometimes make poor decisions, forget things they do or say when drunk, stumble or have trouble walking, seem clumsy, and slur their words.

Over an extended period of time, alcohol can actually cause the frontal lobes of the brain to shrink. That affects your ability to think normally. Once the structure of your brain has changed due to excessive alcohol use, your brain will be damaged forever. There is no way to fix it.

Moreover, alcohol could cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances that would eventually lead to pancreatitis, which is a serious swelling and inflammation of the blood vessels in the pancreas.

Alcohol also poses a higher risk of certain cancers, such as those of the digestive tract (like colon cancer), liver, esophageal, and breast.

If you’re pregnant, alcohol crosses the placenta and reaches your developing baby. Your baby can be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), a condition that can cause physical defects, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Drinking during pregnancy can also cause you to deliver your baby prematurely.

Common Complications of Alcoholism

Physiological effects of alcoholism

The physiological effects of alcoholism lead to numerous complications. The longer you drink alcohol, and the more you drink at one time, the greater the chances are you’ll develop some of these complications.

However, it is possible to suffer from some of these alcohol-related complications the very first time you drink. For instance, if you drink a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time (more than four or five drinks in less than two hours), you can develop alcohol poisoning and have a seizure.

Some common complications related to alcoholism include:

  • Liver damage
  • Damage to the pancreas
  • Type 2 diabetes (or trouble regulating your blood sugar if you are already diabetic)
  • Ulcers
  • Nutritional deficiencies, including iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, and thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency (these nutritional deficiencies can lead to numerous problems, including fatigue, depression, forgetfulness, hair loss, heart trouble, and nerve damage)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Heart problems
  • Dementia (due to changes in the structure of the brain)
  • Nerve damage
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

See your doctor if you think you might be suffering from any of these complications of alcoholism. If you are, you’ll need to stop drinking as soon as possible in order to prevent further damage to your health.

Without prompt treatment, some of these complications can be fatal.

Your doctor can prescribe treatment for the physiological effects of alcoholism and can also refer you to a treatment program where you can get help to stop drinking.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


Harvard Health Publishing. Sorting out the health effects of alcohol. August 6, 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sorting-out-the-health-effects-of-alcohol-2018080614427

Northwestern Medicine. How Alcohol Impacts the Brain. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/alcohol-and-the-brain

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use and Your Health.  January 14, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol's Effects on the Body. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body

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