Effects of alcohol on liver and brain function and unborn babies

Alcohol and liver function

Drinking excess alcohol can damage the liver, the organ responsible for processing and breaking down alcohol.

The liver can regenerate its cells, but long-term alcohol abuse causes serious damage:

  • the illness begins by the patient feeling sick, experiencing weight loss and loss of appetite, there is a yellowing of the eyes, confusion, drowsiness and vomiting blood
  • alcohol causes lipids to build up in the liver - fatty liver disease
  • alcohol damage leads to alcoholic hepatitis, which can lead to death
  • cirrhosis of the liver can develop – the liver becomes scarred and loses its ability to function
  • the reduced ability to process alcohol can also lead to brain damage

Alcohol and brain function

Alcohol affects the brain in several ways, it:

  • slows reaction time
  • causes difficulty walking
  • can impair memory
  • causes slurred speech
  • causes changes in sleep patterns and mood, including increased anxiety and depression

Longer term drinking of excess alcohol:

  • causes brain shrinkage
  • leads to memory problems
  • leads to psychiatric problems
  • may result in the patient requiring long-term care

Human and financial costs of alcoholism

Alcoholism has social and economic impacts:

  • violence, antisocial behaviour and other crime
  • risk of accidents
  • absence from work
  • likelihood of relationship break-up
  • mental decline
  • treatment costs to NHS

In many countries, drinking during pregnancy is decreasing as awareness of the harm to the fetus that alcohol causes is increasing. The data in the stacked bar chart is from Australia:

A graph showing who drank less or more or who didnt drink at all.

The effects of alcohol on unborn babies

Alcohol can lead to a variety of physical, developmental and behavioural effects on the fetus. The most serious is foetal alcohol syndrome – the fetus:

  • is smaller in size
  • has a smaller brain with fewer neurones
  • will have long-term learning and behavioural difficulties
  • has distinct facial features