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All the ways alcohol affects your health

Many studies have touted the heart health benefit from drinking one glass of red wine a day, but too much alcohol can negatively impact your health, and even cause death.

Moderate alcohol intake is defined as one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One drink is equivalent to one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Drinking more than what is recommended by the federal government’s American Dietary Guidelines can have serious consequences on health in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

A factor to consider is not what you drink, but why you drink.

“If you have a drink to cope, whether it’s one or three drinks a day, or go to great lengths to find a drink, you are alcohol dependent,” said Dr. Greg Clary, a psychiatrist at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Beyond major health problems like cirrhosis of the liver and injuries resulting from car crashes while driving under the influence of alcohol, chronic alcohol use can cause cancer, heart problems, dementia, infertility and a host of other conditions.

There are 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths annually worldwide, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Nearly 4 percent of all deaths around the world are due to alcohol from injuries, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and liver cirrhosis. In the U.S., alcohol abuse claims 88,000 lives a year and is the third leading cause of preventable death, according to the CDC.

Cardiovascular disease

Drinking too much can take a toll on heart health. It can raise your blood pressure and the triglycerides in your blood.  Heavy drinking raises the risk of stroke, studies show. It can cause also cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle weakens making it less able to pump blood through the body. As the illness progresses, it can lead to heart failure and irregular heartbeats.

The American Heart Association warns that heavy drinking can trigger sudden cardiac death, a situation when the heart stops working properly.


Drinking alcohol can raise the risk of certain types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, including cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus and voice box. 

Studies have shown that people who had three or more drinks a day were 1.5 times more likely to get colorectal cancer than nondrinkers.

Alcohol is also the primary cause of liver cancer. More than 100 studies have shown a link between drinking and breast cancer.


The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism warns that drinking causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that lead to Inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas, an organ that aids in proper digestion.

Immune issues

Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body more susceptible to disease. Just think about how your body feels when you have a hangover. Chronic drinkers are more susceptible to pneumonia and tuberculosis than nondrinkers, according to the NIAAA.


Numerous studies have shown a link between drinking and infertility, even in women who only have five drinks a week. Research shows alcohol affects estrogen and progesterone levels in women and causes changes in menstrual cycles and ovulation.


Long-term drinking can also affect the brain. Studies have shown brain damage in excessive drinkers, resulting in memory loss and trouble with making plans or solving problems.


It’s a chicken and egg discussion when it comes to depression and alcohol use, but the medical community does agree that depression and alcoholism go hand-in-hand. Some believe that depressed people turn to drink in order to self-medicate. However, a large study published in recent years found the reverse – heavy drinking leads to depression.

Clary warned that alcohol use interferes with medication and yet many patients are not attuned to this problem. In other words, if someone is being treated for depression, alcohol will impair the medication’s effectiveness even if the person is drinking in moderation.

Family matters

Drinking too much not only takes a toll on you, it can also affect your child.

One in five adult Americans has lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The group believes that this puts these children at greater risk for having emotional problems than children whose parents are not alcoholics.

Alcoholism runs in families, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves, according to the academy.

“In terms of relationships, alcoholics are oblivious to the damage they cause to their spouses and children because they’re thinking solely of themselves,” Clary said.

Families will likely avoid discussing the problem in order to avoid arguments and disagreements in the hope of keeping the family stable and not make the person who drinks more irritable or angry, Clary added.

Stress on the job

Drinking may manifest itself at the workplace with irritable behavior, persistence lateness or absences. “Eventually, this person will find himself without a job,” Clary said.

Warning signs include having someone close to you ask you to cut back, getting in trouble at work and being pulled over for suspected driving under the influence, the doctor said. Ultimately, Clary said, “If you think you have a drinking problem, you have a drinking problem.”

The most important thing individuals can do if they suspect they are having trouble with alcohol is to have a frank conversation with their primary care doctor about options. How big a problem is it? Can the individual stop on his or her own or is a detoxifying program necessary?

Clary said the best program to treat alcohol dependency is Alcoholics Anonymous. “There are several medications to treat alcohol dependency, but they don’t have the success rate of AA,” he said.

Published: 3/30/2015