If you have a little too much alcohol once in a while, it probably won’t do lasting damage if you’re otherwise healthy. But it’s a different story if you regularly drink heavily.
For most men, that’s defined as more than 4 drinks a day, or 14 or 15 in a week. For women, heavy drinking is more than 3 drinks in a day, or 7 or 8 per week.
Too much alcohol can harm you physically and mentally in lots of ways.
Alcohol is a toxin, and it’s your liver’s job to flush it out of your body. But your liver may not be able to keep up if you drink too much too fast. Alcohol can kill liver cells, and lead to scarring called cirrhosis. Long-term heavy use of alcohol also may give you alcoholic fatty liver disease, a sign that your liver doesn’t work as well as it should.
You may know about the dangers of blood clots and high levels of fats and cholesterol in your body. Alcohol makes both things more likely. Studies of heavy drinkers also show that they are more likely to have trouble pumping blood to their heart and may have a higher chance of dying from heart disease.
Brain and Nervous System Problems
Alcohol affects the brain’s communication pathways. This makes it harder for you to think and speak clearly, remember things, make decisions, and move your body. Heavy drinking also can cause mental health issues like depression and dementia. You may get painful nerve damage that may linger long after you sober up.
This is when your body doesn’t make enough healthy red blood cells to move oxygen around. That may give you ulcers, inflammation, and other problems. Too much booze may also make you more likely to skip meals, which can short-change your body of iron.
There is a clear link between heavy alcohol use and many types of cancers. Alcohol can damage the cells in your mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus. It can lead to cancers in your liver, breast, and intestines. Alcohol can help cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco and other sources enter your cells more easily.
This form of arthritis results from painful buildup of uric acid in the joints. You can get gout from eating too much food high in chemicals called purines, which include red meat, shellfish, and alcohol -- especially beer and liquor.
Heavy drinking can hamper your immune cells from fighting off viruses and bacteria. It also can harm your liver, which plays an important role in your immune system by making antibacterial proteins.
Booze is caustic. It can inflame the stomach lining, causing heartburn and nausea. Over time, this can give you ulcers and chronic inflammation in your stomach, esophagus, and gut. It can also make it harder for your intestines to digest important nutrients like B12 and thiamine. Alcohol can also cause a buildup of digestive enzymes in the pancreas, leading to a condition called pancreatitis, or an inflamed pancreas. This can affect how much insulin you make, putting you at higher risk for diabetes.
Knocking back a lot of drinks may knock you out at night. But once the sedative effect wears off, it can disrupt or lower the quality of your sleep. Binge drinking too often can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. It can also increase snoring and sleep apnea, making it hard to get a good night’s rest.
How to Get Help
If you think you might have a problem with alcohol, get help. Talk to your doctor, therapist, or an addiction specialist. Find online support groups. Some people manage to kick the habit on their own. But if you feel you need extra help, you may want to check out your local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. Learn more about outpatient alcohol treatment.