By Cindy Kuzma
Just one sip of beer, wine, or whisky hangs out in your body for about 2 hours. Once it quickly enters your bloodstream, it touches down on nearly every organ and system in your body.
Thanks to its job breaking down toxins, your liver bears the brunt of heavy drinking. But even if you don’t imbibe enough to cause cirrhosis—the dangerous liver scarring that marks the final stage of alcohol-induced liver disease—your bar nights may start taking their toll on your health.
Now, we love alcohol, and we’d never tell you to put down your pint glass. Moderate drinking—about two servings per day for men—brings a slew of health benefits, from lowering your risk for diabetes to boosting your creativity.
But if you start to overdo it, alcohol can certainly have negative effects. Here’s what happens in your body when you throw down more than a few.
1. Your Brain
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol doesn’t actually kill your brain cells, says David Sack, M.D., CEO of addiction-treatment company Elements Behavioral Health.
But hooch does alter levels of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that control your mood, perception, and behavior, he says.
Alcohol impairs brain areas such as the cerebellum—the control site for your balance and coordination—and your cerebral cortex, which is responsible for thinking, memory, and learning, says Kimberly S. Walitzer, Ph.D., deputy director of the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions.
Plus, University of Michigan researchers found the amygdala—an area of the brain involved in fear and anger—showed less of a reaction to threatening faces after a single drink, potentially explaining why you’re prone to risky behavior (like fighting a bouncer) under the influence.
2. Your Skin
Sure, beer goggles may make other people appear hotter—but booze doesn’t do your own mug many favors. Alcohol Messes with Your Face, dilating blood vessels and making them more prone to breakage.
This gives you bloodshot eyes and worsens a ruddy-skinned condition called rosacea, says dermatologist David E. Bank, M.D., of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.
Your heart pumps more fluid into surrounding tissues to balance out those alcohol-widened arteries and veins, leaving you with a bloated, puffy face.
3. Your Muscles
Hit the gym as hard as you want—if you hightail it to the bar afterward, you may never build bigger biceps.
Alcohol tinkers with your hormonal and inflammatory responses to exercise, making it more difficult for your body to repair damaged proteins and build new ones (essential steps in getting ripped), according to a recent review in the journal Sports Medicine.
You’ll compound this effect if you reach for a beer before a recovery snack or shake, says study author Matthew Barnes, Ph.D., of Massey University in New Zealand.
So take the time to get some protein, carbohydrates, and non-boozy fluids into your system post-workout before cracking open your first cold one.
4. Your Heart
Moderate drinking might protect your ticker due to the blood vessel-relaxing polyphenols that alcohol contains or by raising your levels of HDL, (“good” cholesterol), says researcher Kirsten Mehlig, Ph.D., of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
But her recent study in the journal Alcohol suggests these effects may only benefit the 15 percent of the population with a certain genetic profile affecting HDL levels. It’s too soon to recommend genetic testing to guide your alcohol consumption, she points out.
Meanwhile, those same two drinks per day can raise your risk of atrial fibrillation by 17 percent, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
This type of irregular heartbeat approximately quadruples your risk of having a stroke and triples your risk of heart failure.
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5. Your Stomach
Just one night of bingeing—that’s five drinks or more for guys in about 2 hours—increases what’s called your gut permeability, according to University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers.
Harmful toxins and bacteria leak from your digestive system into your bloodstream, prompting a dangerous immune-system response that can eventually lead to liver disease and other health problems.
At lower doses, alcohol irritates your stomach, increases acidity, and relaxes the muscle at the end of your esophagus, causing heartburn, Dr. Sacks says.
6. Your Penis
Having as few as five drinks a week decreases your sperm count and percentage of healthy swimmers, perhaps by affecting levels of sex hormones like testosterone, Danish researchers recently reported in the journal BMJ Open.
And while you may find a glass of vino sets the mood, anything more than that could wreck your performance in the bedroom, Dr. Sacks says.
Almost three-quarters of men with alcohol dependence have at least one sexual health issue, such as low desire, erectile dysfunction, or premature ejaculation, say Indian researchers.