Risks, Dangers, and Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Although alcohol can make a person feel happy, pleasant, and sociable in short periods of time, excessive or chronic, long-term drinking can lead to alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction, officially referred to as an alcohol use disorder. Chronic alcohol use is also associated with other cognitive and mental health issues, including problems with learning or memory as well as exacerbating or causing serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety.2,3
Alcohol doesn’t just affect the mind; it also affects the body. Evidence suggests that even drinking within recommended limits may increase a person’s overall risk of death from various causes, such as from several types of cancer and certain forms of cardiovascular disease.4 This article will help you understand how alcohol affects your physical health as well as answer many common questions about alcohol and its short-term and long-term effects on the body.
How Does Alcohol Influence Your Physical Health?
Any amount of alcohol can affect your body’s health and wellness, and the risk starts from the moment you take a sip. An estimated 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, with more than half of those deaths due to health effects like heart or liver disease from drinking too much over time.5,6
Is There a Safe Amount of Alcohol?
Although research suggests a low to moderate amount of alcohol may have certain protective factors for the cardiovascular system, a robust 2018 study published in The Lancet suggests the only truly “safe” level of drinking is zero.3,7 As phrased in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “If adults age 21 years and older choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is better for health than drinking more.” Although the Guidelines suggest that men who choose to drink should limit drinking to no more than two drinks per occasion, and women should have no more than one. (Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than men.)8 Drinking less is better for your health, and among those who do drink, higher average alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes compared with lower average alcohol consumption.4
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
When you ingest even a small amount of alcohol, your body reacts in several ways:7,11,12,13,14,15
- Brain: Alcohol slows down the chemicals and pathways your brain uses to control your body, altering mood, slowing down reflexes and affecting balance. It also can contribute to learning, memory, and sleep problems.
- Heart: Alcohol increases your heart rate and expands your blood vessels, making more blood flow to the skin (which causes you to feel warm), however, this heat passes out through the skin, causing body temperature to fall after it has risen.
- Digestive: Alcohol is first broken down in the stomach, promoting an increase in digestive juices. Alcohol also irritates the small intestine and colon where it is further broken down and absorbed, and it also can affect the normal speed that food moves through them, which may result in abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
- Kidney: Alcohol dries out (i.e., dehydrates) the body, which can affect the kidneys and the body’s ability to regulate fluid and electrolytes. It also disrupts hormones that affect kidney function.
- Liver: Alcohol—most of it, in fact—is metabolized in the liver, which filters circulating blood and removes and destroys toxic substances, including alcohol. The liver can handle a certain amount of alcohol, but as a person continues to drink, it can become stressed to the point of causing permanent damage.
Drinking excessively within a short period of time, or binge drinking, increases the stress on your body and internal organs (and can result in feeling a hangover following a drinking session). High levels of alcohol in your body can result in headaches, severe dehydration, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and indigestion.3
Drinking excessively, even on a single occasion, increases a person’s risk of detrimental heart effects. These effects include:16
- Cardiomyopathy, which means that your heart muscle has a harder time pumping blood.
- Arrhythmias, which is an irregular heartbeat.
- High blood pressure.
Excessive alcohol use on a single occasion can also put you at risk of alcohol poisoning. This can occur when your body is overwhelmed by the amount of alcohol you drank and is no longer able to effectively process it from your system. You can experience a negative impact on your breath rate, heart rate, and gag reflex. Severe alcohol poisoning can lead to a coma and even death.3
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
When you drink excessively and over long periods of time, the long-term effects of alcohol can potentially damage many vital organ systems in your body. These health risks include: 3,16,17,18,19
- Cardiovascular health risks. In addition to the previously mentioned cardiovascular effects and risk of heart damage, excessive alcohol use can raise your cholesterol levels.
- Brain health risks. The long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can cause an impact on memory, learning, and behavior. Alcohol abuse can result in:
- Brain shrinkage.
- Loss of grey matter.
- Loss of white matter.
- Liver health risks. Your liver is a strong organ, but it cannot keep up with the long-term effects of alcohol, which increases the risk of:
- Fatty liver (steatosis).
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Liver cancer.
- Pancreatic health risks, including vitamin deficiencies. Alcohol is associated with vitamin deficiencies due to malabsorption and poor dietary intake. Chronic alcohol consumption may contribute to developing pancreatitis, which means inflammation and blood vessel swelling of the pancreas. This can harm your ability to digest food and absorb nutrients.
- Immune system risks. Drinking too much for too long can impair your body’s ability to fight infection and disease.
- Increased likelihood of cancer. The development of many different types of cancers can be influenced by alcohol, a known carcinogen. Clear evidence suggests that heavy alcohol use (particularly in association with smoking) can affect the development of and increase the risk of breast, liver, esophageal, head and neck, and colorectal cancer. Emerging evidence is also pointing to an increased risk of melanoma, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that alcohol can increase the risk of head and neck cancer by at least 2-3 times in people who have 3.5 or more drinks per day.
- Musculoskeletal health risks. Alcohol can weaken your bones, causing an increased risk of fractures and broken bones. High levels of uric acid and gout are more common in people with alcohol use disorder.
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Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Alcohol and Traumatic Injuries
Alcohol’s effect on cognitive and psychomotor functioning can have dangerous and potentially deadly physical consequences. Alcohol also can lower a person’s inhibitions, so you may be more likely to make hasty, irrational, or irresponsible actions that may contribute to a loss of control, which can lead to many consequences, including violence or accidents.20,21
- Increased violent behavior, including homicide and intimate partner violence.
- Increased risk of injury, including car accidents or accidental drowning.
- Risk of suicide.
- Risky sexual behaviors, which can increase the risk of unwanted pregnancy or contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
In addition to risking serious injury, the above consequences may also be deadly. Alcohol is a factor in about 60% of fatal burn injuries, drownings, and homicides; 50% of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults; and 40% of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and fatal falls.22
Alcohol Use During Pregnancy
No amount or type of alcohol is considered safe to consume at any time during pregnancy.23 In fact, use of alcohol during pregnancy is a leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities and birth defects. If a woman drinks at any time during the pregnancy—including the days, weeks, or months before she discovers she’s pregnant—the fetus is exposed to alcohol in utero.24
Alcohol use during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and a host of intellectual, physical, and behavioral disabilities, the latter of which are categorized as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Characteristics and behaviors of children with FASD include:23
- Small head size.
- Shorter-than-average height.
- Low body weight.
- Poor coordination.
- Hyperactive behavior.
- Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (i.e., the philtrum).
- Attention difficulties.
- Poor memory.
- Poor reasoning and judgment skills.
- Difficulty in school (especially with math).
- Learning disabilities.
- Speech and language delays.
- Intellectual disability and/or low IQ.
- Sleep and sucking problems as a baby.
- Vision and/or hearing problems.
- Problems with the heart, kidney, and/or bones.