Anything in excess is not good for your health. Much like many other things, drinking in moderation is fine but excess drinking can affect your health negatively.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
In the U.S., one drink is usually considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of spirits (hard liquor, such as gin or whiskey).
Heavy drinking constitutes more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week for women and more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men.
However, many people do not follow this rule and end up drinking more than they should.
Nearly 88, 000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Also, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,967 deaths (31 percent of overall driving fatalities) in 2014.
Looking at these figures, it is important to consider whether you are drinking in excess and what you can do to cut back or quit entirely.
Here are the top 10 health consequences of excess drinking.
1. Causes Liver Disease
Long-term heavy alcohol use is the most prevalent single cause of illness and death from liver disease in the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver and can lead to a variety of liver-related problems, such as fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Excessive alcohol can even lead to an increased risk of liver cancer. Women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on the liver.
The liver is particularly susceptible to alcohol-related injury, as it is the primary site of alcohol metabolism. When the liver tries to break down alcohol, the resulting chemical reaction damages its cells, which results in inflammation and scarring.
Moreover, alcohol can damage the intestine, allowing the harmful toxins released by the gut bacteria to get into the liver.
A 2012 study published in BMC Gastroenterology reports that serum γ-glutamyl transferas levels were undoubtedly increased in current drinkers and in heavy daily drinkers, as well as in heavy lifetime alcohol drinkers. This was confirmed through liver function tests.
2. Affects Heart Health
The high sugar and calorie content of alcoholic drinks is not good for your heart, as it can cause high blood pressure, heart problems and strokes.
A 2006 study published in Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology reports that regular intake of alcohol elevates blood pressure. Globally, the contributable risk for hypertensive disease from alcohol is 16 percent.
Alcohol drinkers are also at risk of low-density lipoproteins (LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol) building up on the inside of the arteries and forming plaque.
This plaque can restrict blood flow to other parts of the body and increase the risk of a heart attack and stroke.
A 2001 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research highlights the influence of alcohol intake on risk for increased LDL cholesterol in middle-aged Japanese men.
According to the National Institutes of Health, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can protect the hearts of some people from the risks of coronary artery disease.
But this benefit transforms into an adverse health effect once the drinking habit crosses the moderate level.
3. Increases Cancer Risk
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism analyzed more than 200 studies and concluded that alcohol intake is linked with increased risk for cancers.
Alcohol (ethanol) is converted in the body into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This chemical damages DNA and stops cells from repairing this damage. It also weakens the immunity and influences free radical formation.
A 2000 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that high intake of wine, the most commonly used alcoholic beverage, increases the risk of esophageal cancer.
There is also an association of heavy alcohol intake with increased risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a 2012 study published in the Annals of Oncology. The risk is even higher in people who drink as well as smoke heavily.
For women, the risk of breast cancer also rises with alcohol use. A 2015 study done by the Plataforma SINC confirms that alcohol intake increases the chances of developing breast cancer. This risk quadruples with the intake of each daily glass of wine or beer.
4. Damages the Brain
Alcohol is a potent neurotoxin and its high intake is bad for your brain health. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, high alcohol intake may accelerate normal aging or cause premature aging of the brain.
The toxins in alcohol interfere with the brain’s communication pathways and can affect the way your brain functions.
These disruptions can lead to a decrease in the brain’s processing speed and efficiency. It can also cause memory loss, poor concentration and cognitive decline.
A 2014 study published in Neurology reports that excessive alcohol consumption in men was associated with faster cognitive decline compared with light to moderate alcohol consumption.
Plus, alcoholism leads to two common nutritional deficiencies, thiamine (vitamin B1) and magnesium, which are important for brain health.
Thiamine deficiency causes decreased mental alertness, confusion, memory loss and decreased coordination, while magnesium deficiency is associated with depression, confusion, disorientation, apprehensiveness and irritability.
5. Leads to Pancreatitis
Prolonged heavy drinking can result in progressive and irreversible damage to the pancreas gland.
Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas. This can even affect the digestion process and the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels.
A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology confirms that high alcohol intake was associated with increased risk of pancreatitis. Further, the study indicates that gallstones slightly temper the association between alcohol and pancreatitis.
A study published in the JAMA and Archives Journals in 2009 indicates that five or more drinks per day significantly raise the risk of chronic pancreatitis. In addition, smoking is an independent, dose-dependent risk factor.
Another 2013 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology sheds light on the fact that heavy alcohol consumption may increase pancreatic disease risk, most likely potentiating the effects of other risk factors, such as smoking and poor diet.
6. Causes Infertility
Heavy drinking is linked to fertility-related problems in both men and women.
The toxins in alcohol increase the length of time it takes to conceive and even reduces the chances of having a healthy baby in females of childbearing age.
In fact, health experts recommend that women trying to have a baby and pregnant women should not drink alcohol at all.
Alcohol intake during pregnancy increases the risks of low birth weight, preterm birth and even fetal alcohol syndrome.
Along with females, heavy drinking can even make males infertile. Excessive alcohol intake lowers testosterone levels and sperm quality and quantity. It can also reduce libido.
7. Weight Gain
Alcohol is high in calories and can definitely lead to weight gain. In fact, it contains empty calories that do not provide your body with any nutrition.
When empty calories get mixed with carbohydrates, fats and proteins, they hamper the fat-burning process and lead to increased fat storage.
Plus, alcohol tends to make you crave unhealthy foods when you are drinking. This is why people prefer to have fatty and salty foods with their drinks.
A 2005 study published in Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences reports that moderate alcohol intake is a risk factor for positive energy balance and thus weight gain.
The study also says that alcohol calories count more in combination with a high-fat diet and in overweight and obese subjects.
Another study published in Current Obesity Reports in 2015 suggests that alcohol may be a risk factor for obesity in some individuals, especially when consumed in large quantities.
8. Weakens Immunity
Excessive alcohol intake can also lead to an increased risk of infectious diseases, due to weakening of the immune system.
High alcohol consumption leads to overall nutritional deficiency, depriving the body of valuable immune-boosting nutrients. It even kills the antibody cells that are necessary for fighting off germs, viruses and all types of illnesses.
Alcoholics are more prone to suffer from pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, septicemia and urinary tract infections as compared to those who do not drink.
A 2009 study published in Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research reports that alcohol consumption leads to altered inflammatory cell and adaptive immune responses, which makes one more prone to infections. It also has other organ-specific immune-mediated effects.
Another study published in Alcohol – An International Biomedical Journal in 2015 reports that even a single episode of binge drinking affects the immune system. The effect lasts for several hours to days after the episode.
9. Hampers Sleep
Alcohol has an adverse effect on sleep quality and ultimately causes daytime sleepiness.
Being sedative in nature, alcoholic drinks can make you fall asleep initially, but may disrupt your sleep later in the night.
Heavy drinking can interfere with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which may make you more tired and lethargic the next morning.
A 2013 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research shows that while a drink before bedtime may get you to doze off, but heavy drinking may cause more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night. Plus, you may not even feel as rested following your sleep.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one drink before bedtime can increase slow-wave sleep while not affecting deeper REM sleep. The rule of thumb is to go for moderation.
Sleep is essential for your overall health as sleep disturbance can affect your performance, energy, metabolism, memory and heart health, to name a few.
10. Causes Skin Problems
Heavy drinking has a direct impact on your skin’s health. As a small, water- and lipid-soluble molecule, alcohol reaches all tissues of the body, including the skin.
It is dehydrating, which depletes the moisture from your body as well as skin, automatically making you look older than your age. It also widens blood vessels, causing your skin to look red or blotchy.
Excess alcohol intake causes a depletion of healthy nutrients in your body, particularly vitamins A and C, which are essential for healthy skin.
A 2004 study published in Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica reports that alcohol abuse is associated with many skin changes, such as urticarial reactions, porphyria cutanea tarda, flushing, cutaneous stigmata of cirrhosis, psoriasis, pruritus, seborrheic dermatitis and rosacea.
Another 2010 study published in JAMA Dermatology says that non-light beer intake is associated with an increased risk of developing psoriasis among women.
Other alcoholic beverages did not increase the risk of psoriasis in this study.
Tips to overcome the habit of heavy drinking
- It is important to gain knowledge about the side effects of heavy drinking. You can read journals and ask your doctor.
- You can choose to go to rehab, rely on self-help programs, or get therapy.
- Get support from family and friends, as without support it is less likely that you will reach your goal. Tell your family and friends that you’re trying to stop drinking and give them the reasons.
- Be realistic. Do not expect to stop drinking and stay sober without help, and do not expect it to happen within a day.
- In the beginning, cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink as opposed to giving up alcohol completely. Cut down your drinking slowly and stick to clear liquors, such as vodka, gin or white wine.
- Expect physical side effects from withdrawals. You may experience sweating, nausea, headaches, dizziness or shakiness, and insomnia. But these symptoms will eventually go away and you will feel much better.
- From time to time, acknowledge your efforts to keep yourself motivated.
- In between drinks, drink a glass of water to help prevent dehydration.
- Do not drink on an empty stomach. Eat something healthy before and during drinking.
- It is advisable to avoid situations where you may be tempted to drink.
- Eat healthy and make sure to include water-rich fruits and vegetables in your diet. Also, eat foods high in vitamins B12 and C, as well as amino acids.
- Avoid caffeine, sugar and nicotine, which can contribute to the urge to drink.
- Incorporate exercises like brisk walking, running, biking, swimming or aerobics in your daily routine.
- Acupuncture, yoga and meditation can also help you reach your goal.