Department of Recreation and Wellness

Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol is a Depressant

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. You can think of a depressant as the opposite of a stimulant. It slows down the CNS, thereby slowing brain and nerve function, heart rate, breathing - anything controlled by the central nervous system (which is a lot!).  Thought processes, emotional responses, and motor coordination are all affected.

The slowing of the CNS can lead to:

  • Slowed reaction time
  • Impaired vision (blurred vision, reduced peripheral vision)
  • Loss of coordination
  • Decreased alertness
  • Impaired judgment

Alcohol Messes with Your Sleep

Alcohol disrupts sleep. While a nightcap may help you doze off more quickly, it undermines the quality of your sleep. You don't spend as much time in all-important REM cycles and you tend to wake up too soon.

Alcohol Impairs Sexual Performance

Since it slows down the CNS, alcohol reduces physiological arousal.  People may report feeling more relaxed, or more interested in sex – but their perceptions are impaired, and their bodies can’t keep up.  Physiological arousal originates in the brain, and depends on proper nerve function. Drinking too much alcohol is a known cause for erectile dysfunction in men.

Potential Health Benefits

There is no "one size fits all" approach to potential health benefits from alcohol. As little as one drink a day for women has been linked to increased risk for cancer of the breast, liver, rectum, throat, mouth, and esophagus. However, numerous studies dating back decades have shown a positive relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and heart health. 

The benefits for heart health are more prominent in men over 40 and women over 50, and only when consumption is limited to no more than 1 drink a day for women, or 2 drinks a day for men (See 0-1-2-4 Rule). 

Factors like individual genetics, family history of cancer, family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress level need to be considered to determine if drinking a small amount will end up being harmful or helpful. Experts agree that for people who don't already drink, they should not begin drinking just to gain a small possible benefit. There is no universally "safe" level of drinking other than abstaining (WebMD: Alcohol and Your Health).

Health Problems Associated with Excessive Alcohol Use

Excessive drinking both in the form of heavy drinking or binge drinking, is associated with numerous health problems, including:

  • Chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis (damage to liver cells)
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Various cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, larynx (the voice box), and esophagus
  • High blood pressure
  • Psychological disorders
  • Unintentional injuries, such as motor-vehicle traffic crashes, falls, drowning, burns and firearm injuries.

Source: Alcohol and Public Health (CDC.gov)