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10 Scary Health Effects of Alcohol Every Drinker Needs to Know

Prevention logo Prevention 8/24/2018 Marygrace Taylor

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So you had a little too much to drink-again. As long as you’re not driving, is it really that big of a deal? The answer is a big, fat yes.

While drinking moderate amounts of alcohol (defined as up to one drink per day for women or up to two for men) has been shown to have some positive health effects, especially on heart health, regularly having more than that won’t yield additional benefits, explains Robert Duhaney, MD, an internist with Texas Health Plano. In fact, regularly downing a bottle of wine with dinner or indulging in multiple rounds at happy hour can seriously harm your body-now and later down the road, too.

A major new global study published in The Lancet backs this up. Hundreds of researchers from accredited institutions analyzed information from more than 1,000 alcohol studies and data sources, as well as death and disability instances from 195 countries between 1990 and 2016.

🍸Spirits: 1.5 fluid ounces or a typical shot of gin, run, tequila, vodka, or whiskey (40% alcohol)

🍷Wine: 5 fluid ounces (12% alcohol)

🍺Beer: 12 fluid ounces or a typical can (5% alcohol)

The study confirmed that drinking alcohol, regardless of how much, led to poorer health. While having a glass of wine here and there won’t kill you, the risk of deadly health problems-like several types of cancers, stroke, infectious diseases like tuberculosis, self-harm, and traffic accidents-spikes with more frequent (and heavier) drinking.

In fact, sipping on liquor, wine, or beer was a top risk factor for disability and dying early for people ages 15 to 49 in 2016, leading to 2.8 million deaths globally. That means drinking no alcohol is actually your safest bet, according to the study authors.

Effects of alcohol on the body, explained

Want to better understand the risks of drinking? Here’s a look at 10 health conditions that heavy drinkers are more likely to get.

Depression

Sure, kicking back with a drink will make you feel good at first. But as your body breaks down the chemicals found in alcohol, the balance of mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters in your brain can get disrupted, says Ray Lebeda, MD, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates. In the short term, this can cause your mood to dip. And over time it actually causes your brain cells to shrink-which can trigger problems like depression, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Obesity

One of the simplest ways to keep your weight in check is by not drinking too much. Studies show that alcohol intake can be a risk factor for obesity, especially when you regularly have a lot of it. Why? For most of us, alcohol is just a source of excess calories. Experts know that when we drink, we don’t usually compensate by eating less. Plus, even a few drinks can lower your inhibition-prompting you to eat more than you otherwise would if you were sober, research suggests.

Memory loss & dementia

Off-kilter neurotransmitters don’t just mess with your mood. They can lead to short-term memory loss (think booze-induced blackouts) and long-term cognitive problems, including dementia, NIAAA experts warn. A major French study that looked at more than 1 million adults found that, among the 57,000 cases of early onset dementia, nearly 60% were related to chronic heavy drinking.

Fatty liver

It’s the liver’s job to metabolize nutrients from the things we eat and drink. But having too much booze at once overloads the liver, causing fat to build up. “The excess fat is stored in the liver cells, where it accumulates to form fatty liver disease,” Dr. Duhaney explains. All this extra fat can up your risk for harmful inflammatory conditions like alcoholic hepatitis. It can also lead to cirrhosis, where your liver is unable to do its job and actually starts to deteriorate.

Stroke

Even if your heart is healthy, you’re significantly more likely to have a stroke if you drink heavily. In fact, one study found that binge drinkers (men who have more than 6 drinks in one day or women who have more than 4) have a nearly 40% higher stroke risk compared to those who never binge drink. Experts don’t fully understand the relationship between heavy drinking and stroke risk, Dr. Lebeda says. But heavy drinking is tied to high blood pressure, which is a major stroke risk factor.

High blood pressure

a person sitting on a table: high blood pressure alcohol © Audtakorn Sutarmjam / EyeEm - Getty Images high blood pressure alcohol Flooding your system with alcohol signals the release of stress hormones that cause your blood vessels to tighten and constrict, temporarily making your blood pressure spike. Over time, this tightening makes your blood vessels stiffer and less elastic, which can cause high blood pressure, say NIAAA experts.

Cardiomyopathy

Over time, heavy drinking can cause your heart muscle to become weak and saggy. This condition, called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, makes it harder for your heart to pump freshly oxygenated blood throughout your body. This can lead to fatigue, trouble breathing, swelling in the legs and feet, and irregular heartbeat. Even scarier? According to the NIAAA, it can also cause organ damage and heart failure.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is a painful condition marked by heavy inflammation that can lead to diabetes and pancreatic cancer, one the deadliest forms of cancer. Excessive alcohol consumption isn’t the only culprit (gallstones and certain genetic disorders can also cause it), but it’ll up your risk big time. That’s because booze interferes with normal pancreas function, causing the organ to secrete digestive enzymes internally instead of sending them out to the small intestine, where they’re supposed to go.

Cancer

a close up of a blue wall: liver cancer alcohol © magicmine - Getty Images liver cancer alcohol Heavy boozing has been shown to up the risk for certain cancers, including breast, liver, mouth, and throat cancer. In fact, when researchers tracked the drinking habits and cancer risk of more than a million women, they found that up to 13% of cancer cases were tied to alcohol consumption, according to the NIAAA.

What’s the link? When alcohol is broken down in the body, its converted to a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can injure both the DNA and the proteins in the body and cause damage to your cells, Dr. Lebeda explains. Alcohol also generates free radicals, harmful compounds that cause cells to oxidize. That can sometimes cause healthy cells to grow out of control and become cancerous, Dr. Lebeda says.

Pneumonia and tuberculosis

Alcohol suppresses your immune system by interfering with your body’s ability to make infection-fighting white blood cells. In the short term, that can make you more prone to catching a cold or another bug. But long-term, repeated binges can suppress your immune system to the point where you become more susceptible to serious infectious diseases, Duhaney explains. These can include pneumonia and even tuberculosis, a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection that typically affects the lungs.

HIV

Drinking in and of itself can’t give you HIV, of course. But remember, it can suppress your immune system and make you more prone to infections. So if you engage in risky behavior like unprotected sex with multiple partners or intravenous drug use, heavy boozing can put you at higher risk for contracting HIV. And once you get the disease, it could develop faster than in someone who isn’t a heavy drinker, according to the NIAAA.

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