The Effects of Alcohol Use on the Senses
Several scientific papers hypothesize that long-term drinkers experience substantial, even permanent losses or inhibitions in their senses. To date, researchers have shown deterioration in eyesight, sense of smell, sense of taste, and coordination among people who frequently drink alcohol to excess. There is also a growing body of data that indicates these losses or inhibitions occur in the short-term, meaning people can temporarily experience losses in sight, smell, taste, and coordination, even if they do not drink often.
While the addictive nature and toxic risks of misusing alcohol are well known, short-term and long-term damage to the senses are not often discussed. However, these findings should be made broadly known because learning that alcohol misuse robs people of their ability to perceive the world may serve as a powerful deterrent to excessive alcohol consumption in the future.
The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on One’s Eyesight
One’s eyesight is crucial to living a normal, functioning life. To be robbed of sight, even to experience diminished vision, inhibits one’s ability to enjoy day-to-day living, hence why it’s so important to protect one’s eyesight. According to a body of research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, compelling data indicates a direct connection between short-term and long-term loss of eyesight and alcohol consumption.
Quoting the research authors, “Drinking more than 20 grams of alcohol per day was associated with an approximate 20% increase in the odds of early AMD [age-related macular degeneration] when compared with those who reported no alcohol intake at baseline, having adjusted for sex, age, smoking, country of birth, education, physical activity, and energy from food. This positive association was apparent for wine, beer, and spirits.”
The study results suggest a modest association between alcohol consumption and impaired eyesight. And as a direct result of the findings, the study authors concluded by recommending that people limit or eliminate their alcohol consumption.
The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on One’s Sense of Smell
There is also a connection between alcohol consumption and short-term or long-term loss or inhibition of one’s sense of smell. One study published in BMJ Open found a direct association between heavy alcohol consumption and inhibition in one’s sense of smell. The same study also found a connection between light, moderate, and heavy drinking and a loss of sense of taste (more on alcohol consumption and taste later).
Quoting the study authors on their final analysis, “Age, gender, ethnicity, educational attainment, family income, light-to-moderate alcohol consumption and history of asthma or cancer were significant risk factors for smell dysfunction, whereas only ethnicity, heavy alcohol consumption and CVD [cardio-vascular disease] history were associated with a higher prevalence of taste dysfunction.”
There is no doubt that many factors play a role in gradual to severe inhibition in one’s sense of smell or sense of taste. But it appears that alcohol use is a risk factor for both. When considering the alleged benefits of drinking alcohol, individuals should weigh that against both the short-term and long-term effects such an activity could have on their senses.
The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on Taste
The same researchers who analyzed alcohol’s effect on sense of smell also analyzed alcohol’s impact on taste. The lead study author, Richard Doty, Ph.D., was quoted in Penn Medicine News, explaining how alcohol inhibits the senses. “We think [alcohol-caused] damage is occurring in these nerve fibers and receptors or cells associated with the senses. We now know that alcoholism and poor diet leads to thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1), which can also damage central brain regions important for both smell and memory.”
“We now know that alcoholism and poor diet leads to thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1), which can also damage central brain regions important for both smell and memory.”
Another scientific paper, this one published in the journal, Alcohol and Alcoholism, summarized a study done on two test groups, one a group of people struggling with alcohol addiction and another a group of individuals who had never struggled with alcohol addiction before. The study sought to determine if there was a difference between how people with addictions to alcohol perceive sweet and salty foods.
The findings were quite revealing. The alcohol-addicted group reported less sensitivity to sweet food, suggesting that drinking habits may influence the choice of foods, causing alcohol addicts to prefer foods with a higher sucrose concentration. Not only does alcohol seem to affect the taste buds, but it also has the direct effect of leading alcohol addicts towards processed, sugary foods. That can contribute to poor health, as excess sugar consumption raises the risk for numerous diseases.
The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on One’s Coordination and Muscle Control
The effect of alcohol use on coordination and muscle control is readily apparent. These effects manifest in both the short-term (during and immediately following an episode of drinking) and in the long-term. One study found an alarming connection between alcohol consumption (at levels thought societally “normal”) and significant impairment in balance, coordination, reaction time, and muscle control.
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to communicate with the body. That has both acute and long-term effects on the central nervous system’s ability to control muscles and give the body ambulatory commands.
Another factor that makes alcohol’s effect on coordination and muscle control even more concerning is that when a person drinks to excess, they become less aware that they are impaired. One study found that people who binge drink are more likely to think they are not impaired, compared to people who drink in moderation and who are more aware of their level of impairment.
Quoting study authors Brumback, Cao, and King, “Habitual binge social drinkers show comparable alcohol-induced behavioral impairment but less self-rated perception of impairment than their light social drinking counterparts. ... Given that they report less perceived alcohol-induced impairment than lighter drinkers despite similar levels of impairment, they could be at even greater risk for accidents stemming from poor judgments while intoxicated.”
Alcohol and the Senses Do Not Mix
This article has by no means been a comprehensive analysis of alcohol’s effect on the senses. But a cursory examination of existing data indicates that drinking alcohol has both acute and long-term impacts on eyesight, taste, smell, and coordination. The effects become more pronounced and more likely to be permanent the more alcohol one consumes, the more often they consume it, and the longer they consume it for.
Considering the quality of life and the necessity to be able to perceive the world, it seems clear that the best way to maintain and protect one’s senses is not to drink alcohol. Not at all. There are no health benefits of drinking alcohol and a great deal of risk.
Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC-I