The human body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, or equilibrium, is an amazing trait that allows us to survive widely differing conditions and even affronts to our health, like harsh climates, poisons or infection. All of the body’s systems cooperate in this effort. The nervous system, for example, helps regulate breathing, the urinary and digestive systems. Hormones also help adjust the body’s balance of fluids and electrolytes, among other key roles in all the body’s systems. Less energetically expensive – but no less important – roles in the maintenance of homeostasis include the lymphatic system’s ability to fight infection, the respiratory system’s maintenance of oxygen and proper pH levels, and the urinary system’s removal of toxins from the blood.
The human body fends off many challenges to its maintenance of balance. A diet that lacks the right nutrients in the right amounts will induce the body to compensate or become sick. Stress and depression can challenge the respiratory, cardiovascular and endocrine systems, and thereby weaken their respective abilities to maintain homeostasis. And, insufficient sleep can work all of the body’s systems too hard, impairing the body’s balance. Exposure to drugs, alcohol and other toxins kick the excretory functions into high gear, lest these substances accumulate and damage the body’s cells.
Alcohol, specifically, has effects on homeostasis that are both immediate and long-term. In the short-term, the liver and kidneys must work overtime to process even a single glass of wine or beer. Most people’s bodies are well-equipped for this challenge. More daunting problems arise when the use of alcohol crosses the line into abuse.
A single night of over-indulgence places stress on the nervous, digestive and excretory systems. That’s why a hangover has multiple symptoms that may include headache, digestive discomfort, fatigue and altered patterns of hunger and thirst. People may experience shakiness from the nervous disruption or from reactions to an influx followed by a deprivation of sugar. Most often, the body sorts out these acute responses within a day or two and returns to homeostasis.
Chronic alcohol abuse, however, may seriously impair the body’s ability to stay balanced. Cirrhosis of the liver is one well-known consequence of alcoholism wherein the excess alcohol causes scar tissue to replace healthy liver tissue, eventually impairing liver function. Without a healthy liver, homeostasis is impossible because toxins build in the body and attack every other system, eventually leading to death. Several studies in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research” have pointed to long-lasting imbalances of hormones that control the body’s fluid and electrolyte balance, even after an alcohol abuser has stopped drinking.
Long before they become life-threatening, these challenges to equilibrium brought on by too much alcohol can impair the body’s ability to respond to other impacts to homeostasis, which underscores the importance of using alcohol in moderation, or seeking help if you can’t.