Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis is harmful to your health. Alcohol is a drug that affects every body system, though the detrimental effects vary for each individual.
The volume of alcohol consumed, genetics, gender, body mass, and general state of health all influence how a person's health responds to chronic heavy drinking.
When the body takes in more alcohol than it can metabolize, the excess builds up in the bloodstream. The heart circulates the blood alcohol throughout the body, leading to changes in chemistry and normal body functions.
Even a one-time binge-drinking episode can result in significant bodily impairment, damage, or death. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of many chronic diseases and other serious health problems.
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Fast facts on chronic heavy drinking
Here are some key points about chronic heavy drinking. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.1-7
- Excessive alcohol use is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
- The definition of heavy drinking is consuming eight drinks or more per week for women, and 15 or more for men.
- Per occasion, more than three drinks for women, and more than four for men is considered heavy drinking.
- Binge drinking is defined as five drinks or more for men, or four or more for women on a single occasion.
- Any alcohol consumed by pregnant women is excessive use.
- Alcohol is consistently associated with violent crime.
- 4% of the global burden of disease is attributable to alcohol.
- Alcohol consumption can cause substantial harm to the health of others besides the drinker.
- 59.7 million persons (almost one-quarter of those surveyed) reported being binge drinkers and 17 million people reported heavy drinking.
- People who begin drinking at an early age are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who begin drinking at or after the age of 21.
- Individual differences in alcohol metabolism may put some people at greater risk for health problems.
- Depending on body weight, the blood alcohol level can raise to illegal levels after only two drinks.
- The majority of alcohol metabolism takes place in the liver; while with other organs contribute to alcohol metabolism as well.
- Research suggests that many of the toxic effects of alcohol are due to the body's coming in contact with acetaldehyde, the carcinogenic byproduct of alcohol metabolism.
The 10 most common health risks of chronic heavy drinking are:
Alcohol's hidden harms usually only emerge after a number of years. And by then, serious health problems can have developed.
- Liver disease
- Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems
- Immune system dysfunction
- Brain damage
- Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies
- Heart disease
- Accidents and injuries.
Let's examine these health risks one at a time, below...
The bulk of alcohol's metabolism takes place in the liver, which is why the liver is particularly at risk of damage.
Alcoholic liver disease is mostly influenced by the amount and duration of alcohol abuse, and chronic heavy drinking poses a substantial risk for its development.
At least 90% of people who drink heavily will develop alcoholic fatty liver, an early and reversible consequence of excessive alcohol intake. Chronic drinking enhances the liver's natural breakdown of fats. This results in excess that accumulates in the liver.
Other chronic drinkers may experience long-term inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis), which can cause the laying down of scar tissue. Over a period ranging from several years to decades, the scarring can completely invade the liver causing it to be hard and nodular. About 40% of cases of alcoholic hepatitis will develop into cirrhosis.8
If the liver is unable to perform its life-sustaining functions, multiple organ failure and death will occur. Unfortunately, among those who do develop liver disease, symptoms often develop only after extensive damage has already been done.
Overconsumption of alcohol can lead to pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the pancreas that often requires hospitalization. The inflammation is likely related to premature activation of pancreatic enzymes and chronic exposure to acetaldehyde. A 5 to 10 year period of chronic drinking typically precedes the initial attack of alcoholic pancreatitis.9
Chronic alcohol consumption can contribute to the risk of developing different cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum and breast. Both acetaldehyde and the alcohol itself are implicated as the causative agents for the heightened risk.
Concurrent tobacco use, which is common among drinkers, enhances alcohol's effects on the risk for cancers of the upper digestive and respiratory tract.10
Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems
At least 90% of people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol will develop alcoholic fatty liver.
As alcohol initially passes through the digestive tract, it begins to exert its toxic effects.11 Damage to the digestive system can also lead to dangerous internal bleeding from enlarged veins in the esophagus.
Alcohol interferes with gastric acid secretion, can delay gastric emptying, and can also impair the muscle movements in the entire bowel. The gastrointestinal tract sustains a considerable amount of damage from alcohol.
Immune system dysfunction
Alcohol causes a drop in the white blood cell count, most likely due to trapping of these cells in the spleen.12 Each episode of heavy drinking reduces the body's ability to ward off infections for up to 24 hours after the body's exposure to alcohol.
On the next page we review numbers 6 to 10 on our list of the most common health risks of chronic heavy drinking.