Frequently drinking too much alcohol is harmful to health. Alcohol can affect every bodily system, increasing the risk of liver disease, heart disease, mental health issues, and more.

Alcohol is an intoxicating chemical that can impact health. How much alcohol a person drinks, genetic factors, gender, body mass, and general state of health all influence how a person responds to alcohol.

Drinking in moderation is unlikely to cause harm. However, chronic heavy drinking can be detrimental to health. It is a leading preventable cause of death.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition in which a person continues to consume alcohol despite the adverse health consequences.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in 2019, nearly 15 million people in the United States had an alcohol use problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, 3 million deaths every year result from the harmful use of alcohol.

Acknowledging an alcohol dependency problem is the first step toward recovery. Treatment is available in many forms, including support groups and professional services.

In this article, we discuss some potential health effects that may occur due to heavy drinking.

An image of a drinking glass on its side.Share on Pinterest
Anna Blazhuk/Getty Images

Alcohol psychosis, also known as alcohol hallucinosis, refers to symptoms of psychosis that a person may experience during or shortly after heavy alcohol intake.

Alcohol use cannot cause schizophrenia, but alcohol psychosis can result in similar symptoms. The condition often mimics schizophrenia and can cause symptoms that appear quickly and resolve within days to weeks. Although the condition is relatively rare, alcohol intoxication, alcohol withdrawal, and long standing alcohol misuse all have the potential to lead to alcohol psychosis.

Individuals who can bring their drinking under control have a good chance of not experiencing this form of psychosis again.

Liver disease describes any condition that damages the liver and affects its function. Alcohol-related liver disease specifically refers to conditions that occur due to an overconsumption of alcohol. The liver is the main organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol, which is why it is particularly at risk of damage. During metabolism, the liver turns alcohol into acetaldehyde, a substance that is both toxic and carcinogenic.

Examples of alcohol-related liver disease include:

  • Alcohol-related fatty liver disease: Harmful substances from alcohol result in damage and inflammation to the liver, causing an excessive buildup of fats.
  • Alcohol-related hepatitis: This refers to liver swelling that occurs due to alcohol use.
  • Liver fibrosis: This describes the accumulation of certain types of protein in the liver.
  • Cirrhosis: Over an extended period, damage to the liver can result in scar tissue replacing healthy liver cells, which severely affects liver function.

Alcohol can damage the pancreas as well as the liver. The overconsumption of alcohol can lead to pancreatitis, which describes painful inflammation of the pancreas that often requires hospitalization. Evidence suggests that alcohol is one of the most common causes of pancreatitis.

The inflammation is likely related to the premature activation of proenzymes to pancreatic enzymes, chronic exposure to acetaldehyde, and other chemical activities in the pancreas that occur due to alcohol-related injury.

Evidence suggests that alcohol is a carcinogen. This term refers to a substance that causes cancer. Chronic alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. In particular, drinking alcohol may increase the risk of the following cancers:

Additionally, it is not uncommon for those who use alcohol to use tobacco, too. Smoking can further increase the risk of developing cancers of the upper gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also result in digestive problems. This is largely due to damage from inflammation and interference with gastric acid secretion. Potential digestive issues include:

Evidence highlights an association between alcohol consumption and immune system function. Although moderate alcohol intake may aid the immune system, chronic heavy drinking can negatively affect the immune system by decreasing the number of immune cells and increasing the risk of infections.

Research notes a link between heavy alcohol consumption and the risk of acquiring pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV.

Alcohol can have a toxic effect on the central nervous system (CNS). Additionally, as it is a CNS depressant, it can cause difficulties with thinking abilities and coordination. This may increase the risk of a traumatic brain injury from a fall or accident. In 2019, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 10,142 deaths.

Regular overconsumption of alcohol over many years may also lead to the development of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). This can result in a neurodegenerative condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause vision problems, issues with walking, confusion, severe memory loss, and difficulty with day-to-day tasks.

Dysfunctional drinking can also lead to malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies.

Nutritional deficiencies are common with excessive alcohol use. Although this may partly be due to poor dietary choices, the inefficient metabolism of nutrients likely also plays a role. Heavy alcohol use causes damage and inflammation to the stomach lining and digestive tract, which can reduce the body’s ability to absorb vitamins. Also, as excessive alcohol can cause internal bleeding, this may lead to the development of iron deficiency anemia.

Osteoporosis refers to a decrease in bone density, which makes the bones more porous and weak, increasing the risk of fractures. Evidence notes that alcohol can negatively affect bone health and increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Alcohol interferes with calcium balance, vitamin D production, and cortisol levels, adding to the potential weakening of bone structure. As alcohol can impair coordination, it may also increase the risk of a fall that could cause a fracture.

Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to the development of heart conditions. Regularly drinking too much alcohol can raise a person’s blood pressure, which is known as hypertension. This is because heavy alcohol use can trigger the release of hormones that cause blood vessels to constrict.

This can put an extra strain on the heart and result in the development of cardiovascular diseases, such as congestive heart failure and heart attacks.

Consuming alcohol in moderation can be part of a balanced dietary plan, and it may even provide some health benefits. However, chronic heavy drinking is detrimental to health and is associated with a number of health conditions.

Excessive alcohol intake can damage multiple organs, result in the development of chronic conditions, and increase the risk of dangerous accidents. As such, people should attempt to drink responsibly. If a person is aware that they have an alcohol dependency problem, they should seek treatment from professional services and contact support groups for additional help.