What to Know About Alcohol in Your System

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on July 10, 2023
6 min read

Whether you drink alcohol often or just every once in a while, you may wonder how it affects your body. Some studies show that alcohol may have positive effects in moderation, but alcohol addiction is dangerous for your health.

The alcohol you drink for pleasure is called ethanol, or ethyl alcohol. People have enjoyed getting drunk or tipsy from it for thousands of years.

But what about the impact of alcohol on your health? Is alcohol healthy, or is it just good as a treat after a long day sometimes? While there are risks with drinking alcohol, there may be some benefits as well. It’s up to you and your doctor to decide if the possible rewards are worth it.

Alcohol affects some people differently than others. Similar drinks may have very different amounts of alcohol. It’s important to understand how alcohol affects your body so you can find a safe, healthy balance. Understanding your limits can protect you from the bad sides of drinking alcohol and let you enjoy the benefits.

In the U.S., an average alcoholic drink has 0.6 ounces of alcohol. Examples of this include:

  • 12-ounce container of beer – 5% alcohol content
  • 8-ounce container of malt liquor – 7% alcohol content
  • 5-ounce glass of wine – 12% alcohol content‌
  • 1.5-ounce glass of 80-proof liquor – 40% alcohol content 

Moderate drinking

The CDC has dietary guidelines for what it considers moderate drinking. If you're of legal drinking age, women may have one drink or less per day, and men may have two drinks or less per day. The CDC doesn't recommend you begin drinking if you don't already drink.

Binge drinking 

This is defined as:‌

  • Women having four or more drinks at one time
  • Men having five or more drinks at one time

Heavy drinking 

This is defined as:

  • Women having eight or more drinks per week‌
  • Men having 15 or more drinks per week 

Keep in mind that heavy drinking is not the same as an alcohol addiction. But the less alcohol you drink, the lower impact it will have on your health.

Your body is able to do many things to keep you alive and well. But when you drink alcohol, you give your body extra work to do, taking away from the other things it needs to do to work right.

Your body doesn’t have a way to keep alcohol safe in your body the way it does nutrients from food. When alcohol goes into your system, it becomes your body’s top priority. Alcohol asks a lot of your liver because, when you drink, your liver helps you by detoxing your blood and removing the alcohol from your body.

Alcohol is also bad for you because it:

  • Causes bacteria growth in your intestines 
  • Makes your heart weaker and may lead to a harmful heartbeat
  • Leads to high blood pressure‌
  • May lead to pancreatitis, a disease of the pancreas 
  • Increases your risk for certain types of cancer‌
  • Hurts your immune system

When you drink more alcohol than your liver is able to take in, toxins build up in your body. This turns into a condition called "fatty liver." It's the first stage of liver disease. It happens in 90% of people who drink at least 1½ to 2 ounces of alcohol per day.

If your doctor diagnoses you with fatty liver, your best chance at reversing the condition is to stop drinking completely. About 4 to 6 weeks after you stop drinking, your liver should go back to normal. But if you allow your condition to get worse, it becomes cirrhosis, a lifelong liver disease.

One study showed that drinking one to three alcoholic beverages per week may help your health. In the study, light drinkers had the lowest rates of cancer and death, compared to other groups, including people who don’t drink at all.

Red wine can also help your heart. It contains flavonoids and antioxidants. These are things that help fight free radicals in the body. If you drink red wine in moderate amounts, it may have some benefits for your heart. But you can also get these same benefits from non-alcoholic foods and drinks without the side effects that come with alcohol.

It can make ischemic stroke less likely. An ischemic stroke is when blood flow to your brain is slowed because the arteries to your brain get narrow or blocked. Research shows that moderate drinking may lower your chances of an ischemic stroke because the alcohol causes your body to make less of a protein called fibrinogen, which helps blood clots form. But if you drink too much, strokes of all types are more likely.

It could help your cholesterol. Alcohol boosts your HDL cholesterol, also known as the “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol clears out the “bad” LDL cholesterol, which can help heart health.

Keep in mind, these benefits are mild and only apply to light and moderate drinkers. Everyday health factors like diet and exercise can also provide these benefits, so your doctor likely won't recommend alcohol as a way of staying healthy.

Short-term effects of alcohol

Too much alcohol affects you right away when you drink. If you binge drink, it may lead to:

  • Falls, burns, drowning, and injuries from car accidents  
  • Unusual violence, including death 
  • Alcohol poisoning from too much alcohol being in your body at one time 
  • Risky sexual behaviors that may end in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or an unplanned pregnancy
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol poisoning if you are pregnant

Long-term effects of alcohol

If you continue drinking more than you should, even with the short-term impacts, alcohol begins to take a bigger toll on your body. You may get:

  • Lifelong health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, or liver disease
  • Various types of cancer
  • Insomnia or other sleep issues
  • A weakened immune system that puts you at higher risk for illness
  • Memory problems, including dementia
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions
  • Poor work performance
  • Alcohol dependence

By not drinking too much alcohol, you can reduce the risk of both short- and long-term health risks.

Since ethanol comes in so many varieties, alcohol nutrition facts can be very different from drink to drink. One beer, one glass of wine, and one shot of liquor are each considered one “alcoholic beverage.” 

1 can or bottle (12 fluid ounces) of light beer contains:

  •  Calories: 103
  •  Protein: 1 gram
  •  Carbohydrates: 6 grams
  •  Sodium: 14 milligrams

1 glass (5 fluid ounces) of red wine contains:

  • Calories: 125
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 4 grams
  • Sodium: 6 milligrams

1 shot (1 fluid ounce) of 80-proof vodka contains:

  • Calories: 64
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 4 grams
  • Sodium: 6 milligrams

Beers and wines are usually standalone drinks, meaning you don't need to mix them with anything to enjoy them. But people often combine liquors with mixers. This means the nutritional value of a beer or other pre-prepared drink won’t change as much as drinks that are mixed from scratch.

If you want to get some nutrients out of your cocktail, mix your alcohol with healthy options like juice rather than something sugary like soda. You won’t get many nutrients out of a serving of liquor, so mix it into a glass of orange juice rather than taking a straight shot.

What if you want to enjoy those social outings with family and friends, but don't want to include alcohol? There are plenty of drink choices that can still give you that social feeling without the possible risks that a day or night of drinking can bring.

Whether you're out or at home, you can get what's called a mocktail. They use things like fruit juice, sparkling water, honey, and different spices to create drinks that look and feel like cocktails, without the alcohol and many of the calories. You can find recipes for mocktails online.

Show Sources


CDC: “Alcohol Use and Your Health.”

Cleveland Clinic: “6 Surprising Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health – Not Just Your Liver.”

Harvard Medical School: “Sorting out the health effects of alcohol.”

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, OR.

American Heart Association: “Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?”

Mayo Clinic: “Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits.”

University of Michigan: "Mocktails."

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