About Alcohol

How does alcohol affect me?

For many of us, alcohol is something we enjoy – we use it to unwind, to celebrate, to commiserate and when socialising with friends.

However, from the very first sip, alcohol starts affecting your body and mind. Individual reactions to alcohol vary and are influenced by many factors, including age, gender, physical condition (weight, fitness etc), how quickly you drink, the amount of food eaten before drinking and many other factors.

Some of alcohol’s effects disappear overnight or the next day, while others can stay with you a lot longer or become permanent. The intensity of the effect of alcohol on the body – and your behaviour – is directly related to the amount consumed.

If you’ve drunk heavily the night before, you’ll almost certainly wake up with a hangover. Alcohol irritates the stomach, so heavy drinking can cause sickness and nausea, while alcohol also has a dehydrating effect, which is one reason why excessive drinking can lead to a severe headache the morning after. Use our drinks calculator to see how much of your low-risk weekly limit you consume on a night out.

Drinking too much, too often, can cause new health problems and worsen existing conditions. Alcohol can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease and a number of cancers, as well as many other serious illnesses and mental health problems.

As well as the health risks, alcohol affects us in many other ways, such as our appearance (particularly our skin) and our weight, while excessive drinking can have a detrimental effect on our relationships with family members and friends, as well as our ability to manage our finances and perform well in work.

Can I drink alcohol during my pregnancy?

It is in a child’s best interests for a prospective mother not to drink alcohol while pregnant due to the risk of damaging the physical and mental development of the unborn child – damage which can have serious, life-long consequences.

Conflicting advice on alcohol during pregnancy

Pregnant women can often receive conflicting advice, from various sources, about drinking alcohol during pregnancy.  This confusion is due, in some part, to the fact that the exact level of alcohol at which harm starts to be caused to the unborn child has not been clearly established, though it is known that the risk of damage increases in line with how much you drink.

This lack of clarity is another good reason to avoid alcohol completely, because as there is no known “safe” level of alcohol during pregnancy then the safest thing to do is not drink at all. What is very clear is that there are no benefits for the unborn child from exposure to alcohol, just risks.

How does alcohol affect an unborn child?

Although alcohol is marketed through risk-free, positive messages and is sold in supermarkets, petrol stations and convenience stores as if it were just another grocery, it is important to remember that it is a toxic substance.

When you drink alcohol, so does your unborn child. During pregnancy alcohol passes from the mother’s bloodstream through the placenta and into the baby’s bloodstream, where it can affect its development.

It takes a woman’s liver about 90 minutes to break down just one unit of alcohol. The unborn child does not have a fully developed liver or the capacity to process alcohol like an adult and the placenta does not act as a barrier to protect it from the alcohol passing directly into its blood stream.

What are the risks involved in drinking during pregnancy?

Alcohol consumption can lead to disorders in how the unborn child develops in the womb. Damage to the unborn child from alcohol takes a number of forms and can show up as behavioural, social, learning and attention difficulties in childhood, adolescence and throughout adulthood. As such, there can be lifelong consequences for the physical and mental health of an unborn child exposed to alcohol in the womb.

Drinking during pregnancy carries a risk of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Children born with FAS have been exposed to high levels of alcohol throughout the pregnancy and can experience problems with their growth, facial defects, as well as life-long learning and behavioural problems.

FASD refers to the wide range of less obvious – and more common – effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Although children with FASD can look healthy and normal, they can have issues such as sight and hearing difficulties; problems paying attention and following simple directions, as well as other learning difficulties.

Drinking heavily during pregnancy can also increase the chances of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as increasing the risk of premature delivery, miscarriage and stillbirth.

What if I was drinking alcohol before I knew I was pregnant?

We do not have evidence of significant risk from a small amount of alcohol intake in the early stages of pregnancy, but because it has not been established exactly when and how harm begins, we recommend that you stop drinking for the duration of your pregnancy, so from when you plan your pregnancy or, if it’s unplanned, once you find out you are pregnant. The sooner you stop drinking, the better it will be for you and your unborn child.

However, regular binge drinking (more than six units of alcohol at a time) or drinking heavily on regular occasions during the early stages of pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn child.

As you may be unaware of your pregnancy for some time, if you are trying to conceive or feel you may be pregnant then it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol. It’s also important to remember that, if planning a pregnancy, alcohol can have an adverse affect on both you and your partner’s fertility.


  • Have a good support network around you to help you during your pregnancy
  • Ask your partner to stop or cut down on their drinking, particularly if you are still trying to conceive
  • Stay as active as you can, continuing with your regular hobbies and interests
  • If a lot of your time was previously spent socialising and drinking, then look for new hobbies you will enjoy or meet your friends at a cafe rather than a bar
  • If you are going out when pregnant then choose fruit juices or non-alcohol alternatives
  • Make sure you look after yourself and your unborn child by eating healthily and exercising, as well as ensuring you don’t smoke or take other harmful drugs

If you’re worried about your alcohol consumption

Pregnant mothers should always consult with their health professional (e.g. such as your GP or Midwife) if they have any concerns regarding their alcohol consumption, as they will be able to offer you the appropriate information and advice.

How does alcohol affect me?

You may be surprised to learn that the more alcohol you drink, the more you increase your risk of developing a number of cancers.

Alcohol consumption can cause cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, oesophagus, live, bowel and breast.

Drinking alcohol is considered one of the three leading lifestyle factors that can lead to cancer, along with smoking and obesity.

However, the good news is that you can reduce your risk of developing these cancers by reducing your alcohol consumption. While there is no “no risk” level for drinking alcohol, by keeping within moderate limits you are reducing your risk.

For women, drinking alcohol is associated with an increase in the risk of developing breast cancer. The risk, relatively small at moderate levels of consumption, again increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.

Smoking and drinking

Smoking and drinking together increases the risk of cancer – the effects of alcohol and tobacco together are much worse than either by itself.

Some benefits to cutting down

As well as reducing your risk of cancer, cutting down alcohol can have other benefits:

  • Looking better – easier to manage weight and healthier skin (alcohol dehydrates the skin, dilates small blood vessels and can make it look  red and blotchy)
  • Improved mental health
  • Better sleep
  • Increased energy
  • More money
  • Lower risk of stroke and heart disease

How much is too much?

The low-risk weekly guidelines for drinking are 11 standard drinks (the equivalent of 14 UK units) for a woman and 17 standard drinks (the equivalent of 21 UK units) for a man, spread out over the course of a week, with two to three days alcohol-free.

Tips to help you cut down

It might sound simple but start by drinking less alcohol than what you are drinking now.

  • Keep a drinks diary – note how much you drank, when and how you felt afterwards
  • Find other ways to reward yourself than drinking alcohol: go to the gym, go for a walk, make time to do something you really enjoy
  • Avoid drinking alcohol lf you’re feeling ill, depressed, bored, anxious or lonely
  • Keep within low-risk weekly limits
  • Remove or reduce the amount of alcohol you keep at home

Taking time out

Every so often it’s worth looking at how, when and why we drink alcohol. If you do find you are uncomfortable with how you drink, for example, behaving in ways you wouldn’t normally; experiencing mood swings; having difficulty with the “comedown” afterwards or deliberately underestimating your drinking if asked about it, then you may want to talk to your GP.

She/he will be able to offer information and advice and refer you to support and services that best suit your needs. Talk to family and friends who you think could be of help.

How does alcohol affect me?

If you do choose to drink, there are a few key facts that as a woman, you need to be particularly aware of.

The first is that women’s bodies react to alcohol in a different way to men’s.

This is why the recommended low-risk weekly limit is lower for women, at 11 standard drinks (the equivalent of 14 UK units), spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three days alcohol free.

Women are usually smaller than men and do not have as high a proportion of water to fat.

This means alcohol stays more concentrated inside a woman’s body, while women’s livers don’t neutralise alcohol as quickly as men’s and can’t remove it from the blood as quickly.

Therefore, the same amount of alcohol will get you drunk more quickly – and cause more damage.

Other factors and potential implications that women need to bear in mind when thinking about their alcohol consumption are:

    • Serious illness
    • Weight gain
    • Personal safety
    • Fertility
    • Pregnancy
    • Breastfeeding
    • Appearance
    • Mental health

How does alcohol affect me?

If a man is drinking too much alcohol then it can have a significant impact on his health.

Though beer and sports are often seen to go hand in hand as a result of alcohol industry marketing and advertising, the fact is that drinking alcohol is only likely to result in a physique far removed from that of a professional sportsman.

Weight gain is one of the first issues, with the empty calories in alcohol quickly amounting to the dreaded beer belly or love handles.

If you’re conscious that your drinking is changing your body shape or affecting your performance – on or off the pitch – it is time to cut down.

The recommended low-risk weekly limit for men is 17 standard drinks (the equivalent of 21 UK units), spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three days alcohol free.

If you’re a man who regularly drinks above those recommended guidelines you are at risk from a wide range of health issues – from low energy and sexual difficulties in the short-term to heart disease and cancer in the long-term.

For the facts on Irish men and alcohol see Alcohol Action Ireland’s Alcohol Facts.

How does alcohol affect me?

Alcohol use can be a huge source of worry, particularly, if it is our child, partner or parent we are concerned about.

When someone in a family drinks too much or too often, their alcohol use can affect the whole family.

When that person is a parent their drinking can affect how they parent. For example, heavy drinking sessions can change a reliable, caring parent into an unpredictable one.

You don’t have to be an alcoholic for your drinking to affect your child. Problems for parents become problems for their children.

How does alcohol affect me?

Many of us enjoy a drink. As we age, however, our ability to break down alcohol is reduced and so we can develop problems with alcohol, even when our drinking habits remain the same.

The low-risk weekly guidelines for drinking are 11 standard drinks (the equivalent of 14 UK units) for a woman and 17 standard drinks (the equivalent of 21 UK units) for a man, spread out over the course of a week, with two to three days alcohol-free.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that these are maximum low-risk amounts for fit and healthy individuals and older people should aim to drink less than this, particularly if you are ill.

Those on medication must be especially careful when it comes to alcohol. Always talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.

There are many risk factors to consider when it comes to alcohol consumption as we age, including difficulties with balance, co-ordination and memory, while our bodies’ reduced ability to break down alcohol increases the damage it can causes and the risk of alcohol-related illnesses.

How does alcohol affect me?

Perhaps the most obvious way that alcohol affects your appearance is weight gain.

Wine, beer, cider, spirits and all the most popular drinks are made by fermenting and distilling natural starch and sugar. Being high in sugar means alcohol contains lots of calories.

Calories from alcohol are considered “empty calories”– they have no nutritional value. Most alcoholic drinks contain traces of vitamins and minerals, but not usually in amounts that make any significant contribution to our diet.

It’s not just the calories that are a problem for our waistlines though. Drinking alcohol reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy. While we can store nutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat in our bodies, we can’t store alcohol.

So our systems want to get rid of it – and doing so takes priority. All of the other processes that should be taking place (including absorbing nutrients and burning fat) are interrupted.

Along with drinking alcohol also comes the temptation to eat fattening snacks, either while you are drinking or afterwards.

It’s not just your weight that suffers if you drink too much, alcohol affects your appearance in other ways apart from helping to pile on the pounds.

Alcohol also affects your sleep, making you appear tired and depriving you of energy, while it can also be very detrimental to your skin.

If you look in the mirror the morning after a night of excess drinking, it’s most likely you’ll see a very different face than the one that was looking back at you before drinking.

However, too much alcohol can not only affect your physical appearance the next day, but –if you drink too much or too often – in the long term.

Our skin suffers as alcohol dehydrates the body generally and our skin is the body’s largest organ, so it suffers as a result, while one of the other effects of alcohol is to dilate the small blood vessels in the skin, which can make the skin appear redder than normal. Drinking heavily and often can also lead to other, more permanent skin disorders.

While the vast majority of us are aware that drinking too much is not good for us, few of us know what’s actually going on inside the body to create the many risks associated with alcohol consumption after we put the glass, bottle or can to our lips.

Alcohol, even in the smallest doses, affects nearly every system in the body, from the brain to circulation to immunity. And the more you drink the greater the risk of long-term effects and permanent damage.


Alcohol is broken down by two classes of enzymes. The first is more prevalent in the stomach and converts ethanol, the alcohol we drink, into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is toxic, so the second step of metabolism, which occurs in the liver, happens very quickly in most people.

Alcohol will pass more slowly through the stomach if you’ve eaten recently, allowing for more of it to be broken down before it reaches the liver, so eating before or while drinking really does slow down your buzz. And that’s a good thing! Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, which can bring on nausea or vomiting.

Famished? That drink is also tricking your stomach to think it’s receiving fuel, as alcohol is high in calories but doesn’t provide any real food, which might explain why some people feel compelled to eat while intoxicated, or are especially hungry the next day.


The liver is responsible for breaking down most of the alcohol (now in the form of acetaldehyde) in the second stage of metabolism. Here, the second class of enzymes converts the toxic acetaldehyde into harmless acetate, which is close in chemical makeup to vinegar.

The liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol per hour, no matter how much you’ve actually had. So why does it seem like some people can drink more than others? This rate varies between individuals, and is also affected by gender and how much you’ve had to eat that day. Plus, certain groups of people seem to have particularly low-functioning enzymes or lack the enzymes altogether, inhibiting the completion of this second phase of alcohol metabolism (this is commonly seen in the Asian population). When this happens, acetaldehyde accumulates, causing symptoms like rapid pulse, sweating, flushing, nausea and vomiting.


After a couple of drinks, some may experience a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Researchers aren’t entirely sure as to why this happens, but alcohol seems to directly affect our internal timekeeper. People who don’t drink regularly are more susceptible to this kind of reaction.

Circulatory System

Hot around the collar? Alcohol is what’s called a vasodilator, meaning it naturally enlarges the blood vessels, which can make your cheeks rosy and give you that warm and toasty “beer blanket” feeling.

Immune System

The immune system has two parts: One works to ward off sickness and the other fights off germs once they are already present. Because alcohol suppresses both, you are left not only more susceptible to illness, but also less able to fight it. This effect lingers for about 24 hours after throwing a few back.


The body normally releases a hormone called vasopressin, which, when alcohol is not present, sends water back into the body. But alcohol suppresses this hormone, and sends that water to the bladder instead, which, in turn, sends you to the bathroom line!


In addition to the redirected water coming to the bladder from the kidneys, alcohol is also a natural diuretic, meaning it causes cells to shrink, thereby pushing water out from each cell. To manage that extra fluid, the organs secrete it to the bladder, which gives you the urge to go to the bathroom.

Although many people feel like after that first trip to the bathroom, the need to go only increases, a phenomenon often referred to as “breaking the seal”, this sensation is mostly an illusion. That “seal” is really just a threshold, after a number of drinks you can’t hold it any more. As you continue drinking, you’re taking in more fluids and suppressing the release of more vasopressin, leading to more frequent trips to the bathroom.


Because of the suppression happening in the frontal lobes, some people may find themselves feeling more in the mood for sex after a few drinks. But heavy drinking dulls sensation all over the body, making arousal and orgasm more difficult.

In addition, because alcohol naturally dilates the blood vessels, men may experience difficulty maintaining an erection at blood alcohol levels of about .08 to .10 and above. Blood still flows into the penis normally, but the dilated vessels allow it to flow out just as easily. While certain brain mechanisms might also affect this process, experts say there is little evidential proof.

Wake up the morning after with aches and pains? Alcohol impairs metabolism of a specific protein that can lead to increased production of uric acid, which is a waste product from normal body processes that, in high amounts, can cause a type of arthritis called gout. Some people may experience mild joint pain because of these increased levels after drinking.


Chemicals called neurotransmitters communicate messages all throughout the brain. One common neurotransmitter, which is used for slowing things down in the brain, is called Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. In certain receptors, alcohol enhances the effects of GABA, thereby further slowing down messages throughout the brain.

Glutamate is a neurotransmitter with the opposite effect; it gets things going in the brain. But because alcohol can block the effects of glutamate at certain receptors, messages are further slowed in the brain.

Frontal Lobe

At blood alcohol levels of around .05, this area of the brain begins to show signs of disruption. This part of the brain is involved in decision-making and impulse control, so you begin to make poorer choices and may have more trouble controlling your urges.

As you move into a more moderate dose of alcohol consumption, you begin to only see the near future, called alcohol myopia, and the search for immediate gratification takes over. This is what causes you to eat a whole bunch of bar snacks when you’re on a diet, or kiss a cute stranger when someone special is waiting at home.

Ever told all your secrets while drinking? The more you throw back, the more you suppress the frontal lobes, until you eventually lose control over your emotional expression. The problem is, alcohol isn’t exactly a truth serum so your drunken confessions may not be what you really think.


This part of the brain warns you when you’re in danger. It makes you feel anxious and afraid when faced with a threat. With low doses of alcohol, the amygdala is slightly suppressed, so you begin to ignore the consequences of your actions (and you’re already making poorer choices because the frontal lobes are also suppressed).

As you move into a more moderate dose of alcohol, you can’t recognize when you’re in danger. This may account for risky sexual scenarios and any number of bar fights. It’s also what leads people to believe it’s a good idea to, say, jump off a roof into a swimming pool or other “Jackass”-style stunts.


This part of the brain is important for memory, but is particularly involved in learning and executing patterns of movement. The more you drink, the more the cerebellum is disrupted, leading to balance problems, slower reaction time and slurred speech.

Reward System

Feel like having just one more? Our brains naturally make us feel good when we’re eating, having sex or engaging in other primal urges that are key to survival and reproduction to ensure that we repeat those behaviors. Because of its euphoric effects, alcohol tricks the brain into thinking that drinking is essential to our existence and we must continue, but the truth is it’s not.

Some people may be able to ignore this desire to raise another glass. Others, including possibly those who may be predisposed to alcohol dependence or abuse, might have an insatiable thirst for this euphoria and may be more inclined to continue drinking in order to hold onto it.

But that good feeling will only increase to a certain point. In fact, from the first sip of alcohol, the brain is working to return to homeostasis from its alcohol-altered state. If you’ve ever felt anxious or depressed as you begin to sober up it might be a type of rebound effect. You might feel worse the next day simply because you felt so great while getting buzzed and returning to normal can temporarily feel like a letdown.


As you drink more, some impairment happens to the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory. When you reach a blood alcohol level of about .15, the low end of the range considered a high dose of alcohol, you can start experiencing problems recording autobiographical memories, meaning you may not remember where you went or what you did. With a blood alcohol level of .2 or above, some research suggests there’s a 50 percent chance of experiencing this hole in memory, commonly referred to as a blackout. And when you wake up the next morning and a friend fills in the details, it’s not often good news, thanks to the suppressed frontal lobe and amygdala.

It can be difficult even for trained law enforcement to tell when someone has been drinking or is experiencing a blackout up until this .15 level. Drinking a higher dose results in a “sloppier” drunk; although it may still be difficult to tell if someone is experiencing a blackout, the physical impairments like stumbling and slurred speech will be obvious.

While many drinkers assume blacking out is a consequence of drinking too much, research suggests it’s more likely a result of how fast you drink, although experts are not exactly sure why.

Brain Stem

Deep down in the brain stem are a number of small circuits called the vital reflex centers. This is where sneezing, coughing, gagging, breathing and other involuntary reactions that keep us alive are controlled. If your blood alcohol level reaches .35 or higher, it’s possible to shut down these circuits completely. This is how alcohol overdose causes death, either directly, or, as is more common, by causing someone who vomits to inhale the vomit and drown.

Note: Certain prescription medications can affect the brain stem in a similar way, amplifying the risk of overdose. This is one of the reasons why many medications are not to be mixed with alcohol.

Cork & Kerry Alcohol Strategy 2016 – 2018

Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity – a summary of the second edition