Health Risks of Excessive Alcohol Use

The list of health effects of heavy drinking isn’t limited to auto accidents and the delirium of long-term drinkers. Alcohol abuse is linked to more than 60, sometimes unanticipated, diseases.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines excessive alcohol use as:

  • more than three drinks a day and an average of seven drinks a week for women, and
  • more than four drinks a day and more than 14 drinks a week for men.

This level of sustained drinking and binge drinking (four drinks in a single incident for women and five for men) results in more than a million emergency room visits a year in the U.S. and almost three million visits to doctor’s offices.

Most common disease risks associated with such sustained over-consumption of alcohol or binge drinking include:

  • Anemia, because alcohol can reduce the number of red blood cells
  • Anxiety, because alcohol deforms nerve cells and disrupts brain circuits related to overcoming fear
  • Cancer, because our body converts alcohol into the carcinogen acetaldehyde; at greatest risk: mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast and colon
  • Cardiovascular disease like myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation and hypertension, , because high alcohol levels increase blood clotting and the risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Dementia, because excessive alcohol use shrinks areas of the brain key to memory
  • Depression, because alcohol is toxic to portions of the brain and because alcohol abuse leads to other problems like unemployment and family dysfunction that can contribute to depression
  • Diabetes, because heavy drinking can make the body less sensitive to insulin (although low to moderate alcohol intake has the opposite effect), because chronic pancreatitis (often caused by alcohol consumption) is a cause of diabetes and because the empty calories in alcohol encourages weight gain which is a cause of diabetes
  • Digestive problems, because alcohol irritates the stomach lining and the pancreas, causing stomach pain and diarrhea
  • Gout (a severe form of arthritis), because some alcohol, particularly beer, breaks down into uric acid which causes gout
  • High blood pressure, because alcohol interferes with the body’s control of blood vessel dilation and constriction Alcohol can disrupt the sympathetic nervous system, which, among other things, controls the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature, exertion, etc. Heavy drinking — and bingeing, in particular — can cause blood pressure to rise. Over time, this effect can become chronic. High blood pressure can lead to many other health problems, including kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke
  • Infectious disease, because alcohol suppresses the immune system and opens the door to pneumonia, sexually transmitted disease, and tuberculosis
  • Liver disease like cirrhosis and hepatitis, because in some drinkers (especially women) alcohol causes scarring in the liver and interferes with medication for Hepatitis C
  • Nerve damage, because alcohol is toxic to nerve cells and can lead to symptoms like tingling, muscle weakness, erectile dysfunction, and incontinence
  • Pregnancy complications, because alcohol is poisonous to a developing fetus and alcohol use can cause birth defects, miscarriages, and development delays
  • Skin inflammation, possibly because alcohol diminishes immunity to infection and can interfere with medications prescribed for skin problems like psoriasis
  • Weight gain, because your body gives priority to processing alcohol, which it sees as a poison, and gets carbohydrates and fat from food out of the way by converting them immediately into stored fat

In addition to disease-related problems, excessive alcohol consumption greatly increases the risk of injury from accidents (falls, burns, auto crashes), damage from risky sexual behavior like unprotected sex and multiple partners, and violence (shootings, domestic abuse, fights).

Regardless of where on the alcohol use-misuse spectrum you fall, there are evidence-based treatments that are effective in helping you to cut down, stop altogether, or at least drink less harmfully. Download my Free Report, “Worried You Might Be An Alcoholic? Relax, You’re Probably Not.”

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