Health Effects of Alcohol: What You Need to Know

NIAAA overview of health effects of alcohol

Health Effects of Alcohol: What You Need to Know

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends that individuals who drink
not consume more than the following amounts of alcohol per day:

Safe Drinking Levels:
Men -- no more than 2 drinks per day
Women -- no more than 1 drink per day
Over 65 -- no more than 1 drink per day
Note: A standard drink is 12 grams of pure
alcohol, which is equal to:
- one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler,
- one 5-ounce glass of wine,
- or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

Most people who drink do so in moderation and never experience problems related to drinking.
However, the NIAAA stresses that all drinkers should be aware of possible health effects related to the
consumption of alcohol. Drinking above the recommended safe drinking levels can substantially
increase the effect alcohol can have on the body.

Drinking to excess has been linked to many health conditions such as cancers, liver damage, and
immune deficiencies. Alcohol use can also cause damage to the brain and harm the fetus during
pregnancy. Homicides and suicides have also been found to occur more often in those who have been
drinking. Read more about specific body systems and how they can be effected by alcohol.

The Heart
Recently research has found a correlation between reduced coronary heart disease and moderate
drinking. There is some debate, however, over whether or not alcohol is the cause of the lower risk.
Some believe that the moderate intake of alcohol helps prevent clot formation within coronary arteries,
thus protecting the heart from disease. Others suspect that the correlation may be due to shared traits,
such as diet and excercise. Whatever the case may be, the NIAAA does not recommend people start
drinking to try to prevent heart disease. The NIAAA does not believe the basis for health improvement
has yet been established as deriving from alcohol itself. For most individuals, the side effects and risks
of alcohol outweigh the potential benefits.

The Liver
According to the NIAAA, more than 2 million Americans suffer from alcohol-related liver disease. Fatty
liver, which is the most common type of liver disease, is reversible with abstinence. However, there are
more serious types of liver disease, such as hepatitis and cirrhosis. Alcohol hepatitis is when the liver
becomes inflamed as a result of excess drinking over the years. Symptoms can include fever, jaundice,
and abdominal pain. Hepatitis can cause death if drinking continues but may be reversible if the
individual is able to abstain from alcohol. Cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver tissue. About 10% to 20%
of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, another potentially fatal disease. If a person with cirrhosis can stop
drinking, his or her chances of survival and quality of life often improve with abstinence.

The Pancreas
The pancreas is the organ that helps with digestion. It can also help regulate blood sugar levels by
producing insulin. Long-term heavy drinking can cause pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
Symptoms of pancreatitis can include severe abdominal pain, chronic pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. In
some instances it can be fatal.

The Brain
Images of alcoholic and nonalcoholic brains have been studied and compared. Results show that
chronic alcoholics have smaller, lighter, more shrunken brains. For example, one study which looked at
brain images of chronic drinkers over 5 years found progressive brain shrinkage that was not typical of
nonalcoholics in the same age group. The frontal cortex shrunk along with the deeper regions of the
brain that help control memory, coordination, and balance.

The Immune System
The consumption of alcohol can hurt the normal function of the immune system, which helps fight off
disease and infection. Chronic consumption has been shown to reduce the number of white blood cells
produced in animals and humans.

Gastrointestinal Tract Disorders
The gastrointestinal (or GI) tract mainly functions to break down ingested food and excrete waste
products. It is where alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream. Chronic consumption of alcohol can
effect several regions of the GI tract. Alcohol can cause mucosal injuries or lesions when it comes in
contact with the oral cavity, pharanx, esophagus, and stomach. It can interfere with saliva secretion and
inflame the mouth or tongue. Alcohol is also often associated with tooth decay and gum disease.

There is some research that suggests long-term heavy drinking can increase the chance of developing
certain types of cancer. This includes cancer of the esophagus, mouth, throat, larynx, colon, and
rectum. Research also suggests that women may slightly increase their likelihood of developing breast
cancer by having as little as 1 drink per day