Are People Who Drink Alcohol Less Healthy?
There’s plenty of public debate about alcohol and its effects on your health, but who’s right? Is a glass of wine a day perfectly fine, or are you doomed to poor health if you drink alcohol?
The reality is, alcohol affects different people in different ways. Some people can drink alcohol socially with no ill effects, while others end up with substance abuse disorders and declining health.
Still, drinking alcohol is more risky to your health than beneficial. It has the potential to affect nearly every system in your body, from your brain to your liver. And the damage can be lifelong.
Here’s how alcohol affects your health:
HOW DOES ALCOHOL WORK?
Knowing how your body handles alcohol makes it easier to understand how it affects your health. The active ingredient in any alcoholic drink is ethanol. Ethanol is a natural chemical that you can make by fermenting sugar and yeast together.
Some common alcoholic drinks include:
- Hard liquor
- Malt liquor
You consume alcohol by drinking it. Once it’s in your stomach and small intestine, your body starts absorbing it into your bloodstream. Your bloodstream is constantly moving through your body, providing oxygen and nutrients to your brain, liver, heart, and more.
Because your bloodstream supplies every organ system in your body, alcohol can affect most of them negatively. Your liver filters alcohol out of the blood, and accordingly, the liver can experience more damage from alcohol than other organs. Your brain is also very sensitive to alcohol.
HOW DOES ALCOHOL AFFECT BRAIN HEALTH?
Alcohol affects the brain in numerous ways. Ethanol is poisonous to brain cells, so prolonged or repeated exposure causes permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
The effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Brain shrinkage
- Impaired brain function
A particularly severe consequence is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also known as alcoholic dementia. This disease is caused by a deficiency in thiamine, also known as vitamin B1.
Drinking alcohol depletes your body of thiamine. Without this essential vitamin, your brain suffers damage with symptoms that include:
- Double vision
- Erratic eye movements
- Trouble with movement and walking
At this stage, the disorder is known as Wernicke’s dementia (WD). It can sometimes be reversed if the alcoholism is treated and vitamin B1 supplementation is given.
If WD isn’t treated, it can progress to full-blown Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), which is severe and often permanent. The symptoms include:
- Exaggerated storytelling
- Trouble making sense when speaking
Alcoholic dementia is permanent if it progresses to WKS. It’s one of the most severe consequences of alcohol abuse.
HOW DOES ALCOHOL AFFECT LIVER HEALTH?
Alcohol passes through your liver when your body metabolizes it. When your liver processes alcohol, toxic ethanol causes damage. Over time with heavy or prolonged drinking, this causes a condition called alcoholic hepatitis, or alcoholic liver disease.
Alcoholic hepatitis is one of the most common health consequences of long-term drinking. This disease can be extremely dangerous to your health because the liver plays an important role in filtering toxins out of your blood.
Without treatment, it can progress to liver failure, which is fatal. In 2012, nearly 20,000 people died from alcoholic hepatitis in the United States.
The symptoms include:
- Appetite problems
- Clubbed (or curved) fingernails
- Fatigue and weakness
- Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Swollen abdomen, arms, and legs
- Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
HOW DOES ALCOHOL AFFECT HEART HEALTH?
Alcohol affects heart health in two ways. First, drinking alcohol raises the amount of fats in the blood, which can lead to high blood pressure, artery blockages, and stroke.
Second, alcohol has a high number of calories, so it can affect your heart indirectly by raising your weight and forcing it to work harder.
People who have heart problems already are more likely to be negatively affected by alcohol. You may be at risk for increased fats in the blood if you have:
- Arrhythmia, or an uneven heartbeat
- Cardiomyopathy, or wasting muscles in the heart
- Heart failure
- High triglycerides, or fats in the blood
HOW DOES ALCOHOL AFFECT WEIGHT?
Alcohol is calorie-dense, which means it has a high number of calories per small portion. For instance, a single 12-ounce beer has 150 calories, which is about the same as a soda.
Other calorie counts include:
- Rum: 65 calories per 1-ounce shot
- Lager: 180 calories per 12 ounces
- Light beer: 50-110 calories per 12 ounces
- Wine: 120 calories per 5 ounces
- Whiskey: 70 calories per 1-ounce shot
- Vodka: 65 calories per 1-ounce shot
The exact calorie counts vary based on what you’re drinking and how much, but all alcohol-based drinks are calorie-heavy. They also contain no nutrition, so these calories are “empty”—they contribute to weight gain, but they don’t nourish your body.
People who drink alcohol heavily take in a lot of calories, so it’s more likely that they’ll be overweight or obese. In fact, one study found that 16% of all calories taken in by drinkers are alcohol-based.
If you’re wondering “can alcohol make me fat?” the answer is probably “yes.” If you drink more calories than you burn, then alcohol could cause you to gain weight.
DOES ALCOHOL INCREASE CANCER RISK?
Drinking alcohol increases your risk for several kinds of cancer. The effect is cumulative, which means that the more you drink, the higher your risk.
If you drink any amount of alcohol, your risk of cancer is increased. Even one drink per day raises your risk.
The types of risk affected by alcohol include:
- Colon cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Larynx cancer
- Liver cancer
- Mouth cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Throat cancer
- Tongue cancer
HOW MUCH ALCOHOL IS SAFE?
The recommended alcohol limit is one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A “drink” equals:
- 1.5 ounces of hard liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 12 ounces of beer
Consuming more than the recommended limit puts you at a higher risk for alcohol abuse, dependency, and addiction, as well as the health issues associated with drinking.
However, you should note that even drinking once per day is still associated with health risks. One drink per day puts you at risk for heart problems and cancer—boiling down to a 20% increased risk of death over people who don’t drink.
GET TREATMENT FOR ALCOHOL ABUSE
The truth is, there’s no safe amount of alcohol. Even drinking small amounts has the potential to affect your health. And if you’re dependent on alcohol, or engage in binge drinking, then the health effects could be severe.
There’s no better time to quit drinking alcohol than today. With the help of an alcohol treatment center, you can detox in a safe environment and live a substance-free life.
Your treatment is tailored to your needs and history. The options for alcohol abuse treatment include:
- Inpatient or outpatient treatment: Whether you need inpatient or outpatient treatment depends on your level of stability and how severe your drinking problem is. Inpatient treatment provides more monitoring for severe detox, while outpatient is a good option for people with more stability.
- Symptom management: With alcohol detox, the symptoms can be severe. Treating and monitoring symptoms can be the difference between a successful detox and a relapse.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This type of one-on-one talk therapy gives you the tools you need to understand your thoughts and drinking triggers. The more you understand about what makes you drink, the better you can avoid those triggers and stay alcohol-free.
- Medication-assisted treatment: In some cases, medication can help prevent alcohol withdrawal and alleviate cravings. Talk to your doctor if you think medication-assisted treatment could be right for you.
An alcohol-free life could be in your future. All you need to do is make the call today! Get in touch with a certified treatment center to learn about your recovery options.
Recovering Champions Editorial Team
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This page does not provide medical advice.