The consumption of alcohol adversely has a number of effects on the various types of our blood cells along with their designated functions. For example, regular and heavy levels of alcohol consumption can cause a general suppression of the healthy production of blood cells and their precursors, which will not mature into functional cells needed by our body.

It has been found that alcoholics and those who frequently consume alcohol generally have red blood cells that are defective and prematurely destroyed. This behavior can result in anemia. Alcohol also has an effect on the function and production of white blood cells, especially on those that work to defend the body against bacteria that may invade. Last but not least, alcohol has a negative effect on components of our blood-clotting system, including platelets. Therefore, alcohol consumption increases a patient’s risk of experiencing a stroke.

Alcoholism and Hematological Complications

Those who use and abuse alcohol are at higher risk for a myriad of medical complications, notwithstanding those that affect the blood and bone marrow, which produces blood cells and platelets.

The adverse effects on the body’s hematopoietic system are both indirect and direct. Directly, results of excessive alcohol consumption include toxicity of the bone marrow, precursors of blood cells, white and red blood cells, and platelets. The indirect effects include deficiencies in the body’s nutritional balance that impair the function and production of various blood cells.

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Both indirect and direct effects of alcohol can result in severe medical problems. For example, an impaired red blood cell count, function, and production that results in anemia can cause lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fatigue, abnormal heartbeat, and a reduced mental capacity.

A decrease in the function and number of white blood cells will increase the patient’s risk of a serious infection, while an impaired platelet count, function, and production will interfere with the body’s healthy blood clotting capabilities leading to symptoms such as nosebleeds or even bleeding in the brain. Finally, heavy alcohol consumption will also cause abnormalities in plasma proteins required for blood clotting, leading to the unnecessary formation of blood clots in the body.

Alcohol and Coagulation

Blood clotting, also known as coagulation, is a physiological process vital to the body to ensure the entire integrity of our vascular system. This process involves thrombocytes, or platelets, along with other dissolved plasma proteins. When a person experiences a cut or injury to a blood vessel, their body signals the body’s platelets to gravitate to the injury site. Here, they aggregate and bond, forming a temporary plug to prevent excessive loss of blood. The platelets achieve this by secreting proteins that initiate a chain of events with other proteins found in the blood, resulting in fibrin formation. Fibrin is a stringy type of protein that bonds together to form a tight mesh over the injured vessel. Here, blood cells become trapped and plug the wound.

At several different levels, alcohol can interfere with these processes, causing things such as an abnormally low platelet count, diminished fibrinolysis and impaired platelet function. Changes to these processes can have serious medical effects, such as a raised risk of strokes.

Thrombocytopenia

A frequent complication of alcoholism is thrombocytopenia. This affects between 14 and 81% of hospitalized and acutely ill alcoholics alone with 3 to 43% of non-acutely ill. Other than AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) alcoholism is the leading cause of thrombocytopenia today.

Besides the most severe cases, patients do not typically endure traits of excessive bleeding. Thrombocytopenia derived from alcohol use is generally transient, meaning that platelet counts will typically return to normalized levels within a week of abstinence from alcohol. Patients therefore, do not require therapeutic intervention other than alcohol withdrawal. Only patients whose thrombocytopenia is associated with severe and excessive bleeding require a platelet transfusion.

Thrombocytopathy

Alcohol not only has an effect on the healthy production of platelets, but also has an adverse effect on their function. Consequently, patients who endure unsafe levels of alcohol consumption can easily exhibit a wide array of platelet-related abnormalities upon hospital admission. This can include decreased platelet blood clotting activity and secretion, impaired aggregation of platelets, and prolonged bleeding in the absence of thrombocytopenia.

Since alcohol effects the normal functioning of the blood-clotting system, it can also interact with prescription and over-the-counter medication that prevents coagulation or prolongs bleeding. For example, alcohol will potentiate the prolongation of bleeding caused by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, indomethacin, or ibuprofen, more particularly when the ingestion of alcohol occurs with the ingestion of these medications. The result is a raised risk for symptoms such as gastrointestinal bleeding. Similarly, this pairing can also induce fecal blood loss.

Fibrinolysis

The ability of our bodies to use coagulation to prevent excessive bleeding is balanced by the fibrinolytic system. This system helps to ensure the healthy blood flow of peripheral tissues and organs through the appropriate dissolution of fibrin clots.

The overall effect on the fibrinolytic systems by alcohol is somewhat controversial. While older scientific studies reflect an increase in the body’s fibrinolysis activity, more recent controlled studies revealed a decrease in fibrinolytic activity following immediate and prolonged alcohol ingestion.

Summary

A number of clinical observations support the theory that alcohol has an adverse effect on the function and production of all blood cell types, including platelets. Therefore, alcohol has been deemed directly toxic to bone marrow, which holds the precursor of all blood cell types as well as mature cells that are found circulating in the blood stream. Furthermore, excessive and long-term consumption of alcohol can and does interfere with a variety of metabolic, biochemical, and physiological processes that involve blood cells.

The overall medical consequences of alcohol-related side effects can be extremely severe. These effects include fibrinolysis, impaired blood clotting, and serious bacterial infections. These conditions can cause excessive internal and external bleeding, and place the patient at a higher risk of a stroke. However, abstinence can help in reversing any of alcohol’s effects on blood cell functioning and hematopoiesis.

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