Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

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.

Liver Damage

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.

Heart Disease

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.

Anemia

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.

Cancer

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.

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Seizures

Long-term alcohol abuse may raise your chances for epilepsy. And alcohol withdrawal after heavy drinking can cause seizures.

Gout

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.

Infections

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.

Digestive Problems

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.

Sleep

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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 03, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Alcohol Use and Cancer.”

British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: “Alcoholic neuropathy: possible mechanisms and future treatment possibilities.”

Drug and Alcohol Dependency: “Binge Drinking and Sleep Problems among Young Adults.”

Epilepsy Foundation: “Alcohol.”

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Alcohol Alert: Cognitive Impairment and Recovery from Alcoholism,” “Alcohol’s Effects on Immunity -- Increasing the Risks for Infection and Injury,” “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body,” “Rethinking Drinking: What are the risks?” “Rethinking Drinking: What’s ‘at-risk’ or ‘heavy’ drinking?”

UpToDate, Beyond the Basics: “Alcohol use -- when is drinking a problem?”

CDC: “What Is Excessive Alcohol Use?”

Alcohol: “Association between heavy alcohol drinking and lipid-related indices in middle-aged men.”

Medicine: “Effect of alcohol intoxication on the risk of venous thromboembolism: A nationwide retrospective cohort study.”

BMJ Journals openheart: “Chronic heavy drinking and ischaemic heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”

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