When considering the negative effects of heavy or even regular alcohol use, Blake Hilton, Psy.D., says it’s useful to categorize the effects into short and long-term consequences on the body. As an OU Health clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Hilton studies and treats substance use disorders and other mental health concerns.

“In the short-term, drinking heavily or regularly can affect our mood, sleep and how well our brain functions,” he says. “In the long term, heavy or frequent alcohol use can begin to have devastating effects on our bodies, including heart and brain health, liver function and other physical problems. Alcohol can increase our risk for certain cancers as well. It can also lead to deficits in cognitive functions such as in planning, attention and concentration.”

He says one area that’s important to many is their sleep. 

“Heavy drinking affects our sleep architecture and can result in profound insomnia,” says Hilton. “This can be frustrating for some, as alcohol may have initially helped these individuals fall asleep quicker. They end up obtaining worse sleep as a result.”

He’s also quick to note that heavy drinking not only affects a person’s body, but also their relationships, jobs and other important aspects of life. What about someone who may not be a heavy drinker, but utilizes alcohol as part of an evening routine or weekend? Does alcohol still have a profound effect? 

According to Hilton, research is beginning to show that no level of alcohol consumption is completely ‘safe.’

“Although there has been some mixed evidence over the years regarding the protective effects of drinking alcohol in small amounts or in moderation, newer studies with very large samples suggest this is not in fact the case,” he says. “For example, a recent study of about 600,000 drinkers published in [peer-reviewed medical journal] the Lancet demonstrated that even very minimal amounts of alcohol can increase risk for cardiovascular disease and overall mortality, and that this amount was much lower than most current national guidelines. Other recent large-scale analyses suggest the level of alcohol use that minimizes risk for all health outcomes is actually zero.”

Sobering statistics worth considering – as alcohol does play a role in premature aging. 

“We know that heavy drinking negatively affects multiple brain functions, including planning, attention, concentration, memory and visuospatial skills,” says Hilton. “The good news is many of these functions can return to normal following a period of prolonged abstinence. Regarding premature aging of the brain, heavy alcohol use is strongly associated with functional and structural changes to our brain, as well as dementia.” 

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