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.
You will see introductions at the end of some sections of this article to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
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.
Alcohol alters brain receptors and neurotransmitters and interferes with a person's cognitive function, moods, emotions and reactions on multiple levels.
Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it causes difficulty with processing information and poses challenges with solving simple problems.
Alcohol's effect on serotonin and GABA receptors may reduce an individual'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.
Because their brains are still developing until approximately age twenty-five, young adults are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol.
Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies
Dysfunctional drinking leads to malnourishment and several vitamin deficiencies.
Individuals who are actively drinking often have a poor diet. Even if a drinker eats a healthy diet, nutrients are not broken down properly, are not adequately absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the blood, and are not used effectively by the body's cells.13
Also, alcohol's ability to interrupt red blood cell production and to cause bleeding from gastric ulcers may lead to the development of iron deficiency anemia.
Chronic heavy alcohol consumption, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood, can dramatically affect bone health and may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis (loss of bone mass) later on in life. Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures, especially of the hip.
Long-term heavy drinking can cause a form of dementia that affects memory, learning and other mental functions.
Alcohol also interferes with the balance of calcium, vitamin D production, and cortisol levels, adding to the potential weakening of bone structure. Although alcohol's damaging effects on bone are most striking in young people, research has shown that women between the ages of 67 and 90 who drank excessively had greater bone loss than women who did not.14
Excessive alcohol intake is additionally linked to multiple cardiovascular complications, including cardiomyopathy (weakened and overstretched heart muscles), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), heart attack, and sudden cardiac death.15
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.16
Accidents and injuries
Drinking alcohol in any amount is linked to car crashes, boating accidents, bicycle incidents, falls, drowning, occupational injuries, suicide, and homicide. Driving ability is impaired with as little as one drink, and a drinking individual is likely to sustain a greater severity of injury with an accident. Alcohol use continues to be the leading cause of injuries treated in emergency departments.17
Chronic heavy drinking poses an enormous health risk. When alcohol is consumed in excess either on one isolated occasion or over an extended period of time, the body can suffer severe and irreversible 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.
Girls who suffer concussion in childhood could be at increased risk for abusing alcohol as adults, though the risk is reversible, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma.
Alcohol consumption alters the structure and function of neurons in an area of the brain called the dorsomedial striatum, find scientists.
It is well known that high blood pressure and diabetes can raise the risk of stroke. But a new twin study finds that, for middle-aged individuals, there may be one factor that increases this risk even more: heavy alcohol consumption.