Frequently drinking too much alcohol is harmful to health. Alcohol can have an impact on every body system.
How much alcohol a person drinks, genetic factors, gender, body mass, and general state of health all influence how a person’s health responds to chronic heavy drinking.
However, studies consistently show that, overall, heavy alcohol consumption is detrimental to health and a leading preventable cause of death.
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 single 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.
Alcohol has been found to contribute to at least 60 different health conditions.
Let’s look at the ten most common effects of heavy drinking.
Fast facts on chronic heavy drinking
Here are some key points about chronic heavy drinking. More detail information is in the main article.
- Excessive alcohol use is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
- In 2010-2012, around 38 million American adults said they binge drink on average four times a month, drinking an average of eight drinks per session.
- The definition of heavy drinking is consuming eight drinks or more per week for women, and 15 or more for men.
- Any alcohol consumed by pregnant women is excessive use.
- Alcohol consumption is associated with violent crime.
- People who begin drinking before the age of 15 years are five times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than those who begin drinking at or after the age of 21 years.
Alcohol is mostly metabolized in the liver, which is why the liver is particularly at risk of damage.
The body metabolizes alcohol into acetaldehyde, a substance that is both toxic and carcinogenic.
Alcoholic liver disease is influenced by the amount and duration of alcohol abuse. Chronic, heavy drinking poses a substantial risk for its development.
Drinking heavily significantly increases the risk of alcoholic fatty liver, an early and reversible consequence of excessive alcohol intake. Chronic drinking alters the liver’s metabolism of fats, and excess fat accumulates in the liver.
Over a period ranging from several years to decades, the scarring can completely invade the liver, causing it to be hard and nodular. This is known as cirrhosis.
If the liver cannot perform its life-sustaining functions, multiple organ failure and death will occur. 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 proenzymes to pancreatic enzymes and chronic exposure to acetaldehyde, and other chemical activities in the pancreas caused by alcohol injury.
Around 70 percent of cases of pancreatitis affect people who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol.
Chronic alcohol consumption can increase 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 contribute to the heightened risk.
People who smoke tobacco as well as drinking have a higher risk of cancer of the upper gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract.
As alcohol initially passes through the gastrointestinal 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 related to chronic liver disease.
Alcohol interferes with gastric acid secretion. It can delay gastric emptying, and it can impair the muscle movements in the entire bowel.
The gastrointestinal tract sustains a considerable amount of damage from alcohol.
Alcohol causes changes in red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
A drop in the white blood cell count can occur due to alcoholism. This happens because the body’s production of white blood cells is suppressed, and the cells become trapped in the spleen.
Each episode of heavy drinking reduces the body’s ability to ward off infections. Exposure to large amounts of alcohol and chronic, heavy alcohol use will adversely affect white blood cell production and function over time.
Alcohol is associated with blurred vision, memory lapses, slurred speech, difficulty walking and slowed reaction time. These are all due to its effects on the brain.
It alters the brain receptors and neurotransmitters, and it interferes with a person’s cognitive function, moods, emotions, and reactions on multiple levels.
Because alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, it causes difficulty with processing information and poses challenges with solving simple problems.
Alcohol’s effect on serotonin and GABA receptors may cause neurological changes that could lead to a reduction in a person’s normal fear of consequences to their own actions, contributing to risk-taking or violent behaviors.
Alcohol also disrupts fine motor coordination and balance, often leading to injuries from falls. Excessive drinking can cause “blackouts” or the inability to remember events. Long-term heavy drinking can speed up the brain’s normal aging process, resulting in early and permanent dementia.
Until the age of 24 years, the brain is still developing. As a result, young adults are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol.
Dysfunctional drinking leads to malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies.
This may be due partly to a poor diet, but also because nutrients are not broken down properly. They are not adequately absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the blood, and they are are not used effectively by the body’s cells.
Chronic heavy alcohol consumption, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood, can dramatically affect bone health, and it may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, with a loss of bone mass, later on in life.
Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures, especially in the proximal femur of the hip.
People who drink excessively are more likely to fracture a vertebra than those who do not.
Drinking high quantities of alcohol during adolescence increases the risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Heavy can cause blood pressure to be high by triggering the release of certain hormones that cause constriction of blood vessels. This can adversely affect the heart.
Stroke is a potentially deadly complication of binge drinking. Fluctuations in blood pressure and increases in platelet activation are common during the body’s recovery from a binge. This deadly combination heightens the chance of ischemic stroke.
Drinking alcohol in any amount is linked to car crashes, domestic violence, falls, drowning, occupational injuries, suicide, and homicide.
Driving ability may be impaired with as little as one drink, and a person who drinks heavily is likely to sustain a greater severity of injury with an accident.
Chronic or heavy drinking poses an enormous health risk. Drinking too much, whether on one occasion or over an extended period, can lead to severe and irreversible body damage.
No pattern of drinking is entirely risk-free, and there is no reliable method of predicting how or when an individual will be harmed as a result of the chronic heavy drinking of alcohol.
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