Drinking alcohol more often than not is injurious to one’s health; it can impact every system of our body.(2) The way the person’s body responds to the heavy usage of alcohol is determined by the person’s gender, genetic factors, body mass and overall health state.(6) Nevertheless, research has shown consistently that heavy alcohol consumption has a very deep effect on our health and also is one of the leading causes of death which otherwise could be prevented.(1, 2, 3)
The heart, rather than pumping just blood will start to pump alcohol when our body is given more alcohol than it can metabolize causing it to build up and be collected in our bloodstream; the chemistry of our body and normal body functions are also affected.
Anything in excess is harmful for us and the same goes for alcohol which will eventually lead to the development of serious health problems and numerous chronic diseases. A single binge drinking episode has the capacity to bring about significant body impairment. The diagnosis behind at least 60 health conditions traces back to alcohol
Some key points on heavy alcohol drinking are as follows:(4, 5)
- A survey conducted in 2010-2012 revealed, 37 million American adults binge drink on average 4 times per month, equals to average of 8-10 drinks per session.
- Heavy alcohol usage bags fourth place in the United States as a preventable leading cause of death.
- Heavy drinking is defined as, women drinking 8 drinks or more per week and 15 or more for men.
- A strong correlation is found to be with alcohol consumption and violent crime.
- Pregnant women consuming alcohol comes under excessive alcohol usage.
- When people of age below 15 start drinking, they are 5 times more prone to be dependent on alcohol when compared to those who begin drinking after the age of 21 years.
10 Most Common Ill Effects or Health Risks From Heavy Drinking Are(2, 6)
1. Liver Disease(6, 7, 8, 9)
Excessive alcohol consumption is said to affect numerous systems of our body, but more so our liver. The liver is at higher risk than any other organ because the alcohol is mainly metabolized in the liver. Our body metabolizes the alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is both carcinogenic and also toxic.(6) Chronic heavy drinkers are at higher risk for development of alcoholic liver disease and this is influenced by the duration and amount of alcohol abuse.
Heavy drinking of alcohol poses the risk of developing an alcoholic fatty liver, which is reversible and is an early consequence of drinking alcohol excessively. Basically, chronic drinking leads to the change in the process of liver’s metabolism of fats; hence, excessive fat tends to get accumulated in the liver.
Some other noteworthy changes/effects on the liver constitute of long term inflammation of liver, also called as alcoholic hepatitis, which can lead to the development of scar tissue ranging from several years to decades. The scarring can completely take over the liver causing it to become hard and nodular.(7) This process of the scarring of the liver is known as cirrhosis.(7)
The liver owes the credit of performing several life sustaining functions and if by any chance it is unable to perform its duty due to some reasons (alcohol abuse being one), it will lead to multiple organ failure and eventually death. This stage or condition is too late to be prevented because the symptoms only develop after extensive damage is already done to the liver.
2. Alcoholic Pancreatitis(6, 10, 11)
Excessive alcohol consumption causes pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas and is a painful condition requiring hospitalization. This inflammation of the pancreas is often linked with premature conversion of proenzymes to pancreatic enzymes along with long term exposure to acetaldehyde, and various chemical activities in the pancreas resulting from alcohol injury. About 70% pancreatitis patients are those who are heavy drinkers of alcohol.
3. Gastrointestinal Problems and Ulcers(12)
Chronic heavy drinking can also cause alcoholic fatty liver. Excessive alcohol drinking causes a serious amount of damage in the gastrointestinal tract. Heavy alcohol consumption also messes with your digestive system and cause heartburn, gastritis, acid reflux, and stomach ulcers. When the alcohol passes through the GI tract, it starts to disperse its toxic effects and cause damage to the digestive system potentially resulting in fatal internal bleeding from enlarged veins present in the esophagus from chronic liver disease. The secretion of the gastric acids also gets disrupted and leads to delayed gastric emptying, which can further hinder the muscle movements in the complete bowel.
4. Cancer(6, 12, 13, 15)
Long term alcohol consumption also increases the risk of developing various cancers, such as cancers of the breast, rectum, colon, liver, mouth, stomach, larynx and esophagus. In fact the alcohol and acetaldehyde are responsible for increased risk of cancer. Along with drinking, smoking also increases the risk of cancer of respiratory tract and the upper gastrointestinal tract.
5. Weakened Immune System(14, 16)
Drinking too much alcohol over a period of time can lead to weakened immunity, which makes the body susceptible to infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.(14) Alcohol causes changes in platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells. Alcoholism can cause decrease in the white blood cell count, as the production of the white blood cells is suppressed in the body where these cells get trapped in the spleen. Each episode of heavy alcohol drinking decreases the body’s ability to fight any disease or infections. Heavy and chronic alcohol use adversely affects the production and function of white blood cells. All this increases the risk of tuberculosis, pneumonia and HIV infection.(14)
6. Damage to Brain(17, 18)
Chronic heavy drinking can cause a certain type of dementia which affects a person’s learning, memory and other brain functions. Alcohol abuse is related to difficulty in walking, slurred speech, memory lapses, blurred vision and delayed reaction time. This occurs as a result of the effects of alcohol on the brain. Heavy alcohol consumption changes the brain neurotransmitters and receptors and also hampers with a person’s emotions, mood, cognitive function and reactions on various levels. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and this is why it causes difficulty with processing of any information and makes it difficult to follow simple instructions and resolve simple problems.
Alcohol also affects the GABA receptors and serotonin and leads to neurological changes resulting in impulsivity and impaired judgment where a person will not have any fear with regards to consequences of their own actions, which in turn contributes to violent or risk-taking behaviors.
Alcohol also creates havoc with fine motor coordination and balance that can cause falls and injuries. A person can experience blackouts from excessive alcohol drinking or inability to recollect events. Excessive alcohol consumption can also cause rapid decline in the aging process of the brain and can potentially result in early or even permanent dementia.
The brain is still developing until the age of 24, and due to this; young adults are more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol.
Concussion in young women may lead to alcohol abuse. According to a study, girls who suffer concussion in their childhood can be at higher risk for alcohol abuse as adults, even though the risk is reversible.(31)
7. Vitamin Deficiencies and Malnourishment(19)
Dysfunctional alcohol drinking can cause vitamin deficiencies and malnourishment. Poor diet can also be partially responsible for this; however, the main reason is improper breakdown and incomplete absorption of the nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract into the blood thanks to heavy alcohol drinking. Alcohol also disrupts production of red blood cells from the bone marrow and this can cause bleeding from gastric ulcers resulting in iron deficiency anemia.
8. Osteoporosis (20, 21, 22)
Chronic heavy drinking especially during teens and young adulthood can drastically affect the bone health and can also increase the risk of osteoporosis later on in life. The risk of fractures is increased due to Osteoporosis, especially in the proximal femur of the hip.
Alcohol also interferes with the levels of cortisol, calcium, production of vitamin D, which further causes weakening of bones. Heavy drinkers are at increased risk of fracturing a vertebra than compared to those who do not drink or drink sparingly.
9. Cardiovascular Health and Heart Disease (23, 24, 25)
Heavy drinking can cause hypertension by causing the release of certain hormones, which are responsible for constriction of blood vessels. Narrowed blood vessels hamper heart and cardiovascular health. Various cardiovascular complications are associated with excessive alcohol intake, such as high blood pressure, angina and heart failure. One of the fatal complications of binge drinking is stroke. When a person’s body is recovering from an episode of binge drinking, there occurs platelet activation and fluctuations in blood pressure. This deadly combination increases the risk of ischemic stroke.
Alcohol consumption changes the function and structure of neurons in dorsomedial striatum of the brain. The risk of stroke from alcohol abuse in midlife is more than the risk of diabetes.
10. Behavior Issues, Injuries and Accidents (26, 27, 28, 29, 30)
Alcohol consumption in any amount is linked to domestic violence, car crashes, occupational injuries, drowning, falls, homicide and suicide. The ability to drive also gets impaired even with one small drink and a drinker who chooses to drive is more likely to have accidents and suffer from injuries. Heavy or chronic drinking contributes to great health risk. Excessive drinking whether over a period of time or on one occasion can cause acute and irreversible damage to the body.
Drinking alcohol, whether occasionally or daily will not be completely risk-free, and there is no way to determine how or when a person will get harmed from heavy alcohol consumption over a period of time. So, it is highly recommended to cut down on alcohol gradually and develop a taste for other less harmful beverages such as coffee, tea, juices etc.