What to Know About Alcohol in Your System

Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 22, 2021

Whether you enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage or drink regularly, you may be wondering how alcohol affects your body. Some studies suggest alcohol may have positive effects in moderation, but alcohol addiction is dangerous for your health.

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 established dietary guidelines for what is considered moderate drinking. Women of legal drinking age may consume one drink or less per day, and men may consume two drinks or less per day. The CDC does not recommend that you begin drinking if you are a non-drinker.

Excessive drinking. Your alcohol consumption is considered excessive if you:

  • Binge drink
  • Drink heavily
  • Consume alcohol during pregnancy‌
  • Drink before turning 21

Binge drinking is defined as:‌

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

Heavy drinking 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 being an alcoholic. The less alcohol you consume, however, means alcohol will have less impact on your health.

Your body has a certain capacity for completing the many processes needed to keep you alive and well. When you drink alcohol, you give your body extra work to do, taking away from other essential processes.

Your body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol the way it does nutrients from food. When alcohol enters your system, dealing with it becomes your body’s priority. Alcohol takes a special toll on your liver because, when you drink, your liver serves you by detoxifying your bloodstream and eliminating alcohol from your body.

Alcohol is also bad for you because it:

  • Causes bacteria growth in your intestines 
  • Weakens your heart and may lead to an irregular heartbeat
  • Contributes to high blood pressure‌
  • May lead to pancreatitis 
  • Increases your risk for certain types of cancer‌
  • Weakens your immune system

When you drink more alcohol than your liver is able to process, toxins begin building up in your body. This results in a condition called fatty liver. It is the first stage in the progression of liver disease. It develops in 90% of people who drink at least one and a half to two 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. Four to six weeks after you stop drinking, your liver will have usually healed itself completely. However, if you allow your condition to worsen to cirrhosis, the damage is irreversible.

Light drinking. One study showed that drinking one to three alcoholic beverages per week may improve 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.

Short-term impacts on your health. Excessive alcohol impacts you immediately upon consumption. If you binge drink, it may lead to:

  • Injuries from car accidents, falls, drowning, and burns 
  • Uncharacteristic violence up to and including death 
  • Alcohol poisoning from too much alcohol being in your system at one time 
  • Risky sexual behaviors that end in sexually transmitted infections or an unplanned pregnancy
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol poisoning if you are pregnant

Long-term impacts on your health. If you continue drinking excessively despite the short-term impacts, alcohol begins to take a greater toll on your body. You may develop:

  • Chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, or liver disease
  • Various types of cancer
  • Insomnia or disordered sleep
  • A weakened immune system that puts you at an increased risk for illness
  • Memory problems up to and including dementia
  • Depression, anxiety, and other conditions associated with a decline in mental health
  • Loss of productivity and engagement with others
  • Alcohol dependence

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

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.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info