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Understanding the Health Risks of Too Much Alcohol

By learning more about alcohol’s impact on your body, you can make better decisions about your alcohol consumption.

Alcohol is such a big part of our culture. It’s common to get an invite to happy hour after work or to have a drink or two after a long day. Some people use it as a way to socialize and have fun; others use it to cope with tough emotions or stress. But alcohol use, especially extreme use, can have a significant impact on our health and wellness.

Most of us understand that we feel different after drinking, but what do we actually know about what alcohol is doing to our bodies? What effects does it have on our health?

Let’s learn more about the harmful effects of alcohol on our bodies, as well as resources available to help us take control of our drinking.

How Does Drinking Affect My Health?

Drinking too much or drinking over a long period of time can have a serious impact on health and wellness. Nearly every organ system of your body is affected by alcohol. Even a serving or two of alcohol per day can increase our risk for certain cancers, and drinking heavily over a long period of time can cause serious damage to almost all of your organs.Woman refusing wine.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, here are some of the ways alcohol consumption affects your health:

  • Brain – Alcohol can affect the way your brain works, causing disruptions that can change your mood and behavior, as well as your ability to think clearly and move with coordination.
  • Heart – Drinking for a long time or drinking too much on a single occasion can damage your heart and cause stroke, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and cardiomyopathy.
  • Liver – Heavy drinking can damage and inflame your liver causing fibrosis, cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Pancreas – Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis where the pancreas swells and becomes painful.
  • Cancer – According to the National Cancer Institute, research shows that drinking can increase your risk for several types of cancer, including head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Research indicates that the more a person drinks, the higher their risk becomes, but even those who have no more than one drink per day have a modestly increased risk of some cancers.
  • Immune system – Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making it easier for diseases to attack your body. For example, chronic drinkers are more likely to get pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink very much.

In addition to these physical health issues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares many other ways alcohol can impact your overall health by increasing your risk for:

  • Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes and falls
  • Violence and increased feelings of aggression
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth among pregnant women, as well as health risks like fetal alcohol disorders for babies
  • Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety
  • Alcohol use disorders or alcohol dependence
  • Overdose risk

To get a visual and more information on the effects drinking has on your body, check out Alcohol and You: An Interactive Body that allows you to click on an organ to learn what impact alcohol has on it.

How Much Is Too Much?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults of legal drinking age either choose not to drink at all or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less a day for women. According to the CDC, a standard drink contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. In general, this equates to 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of liquor.

The guidelines do not encourage you to drink, and note that the less you drink, the better it is for your health – as your risks for certain cancers can increase with even very low levels of consumption. These guidelines also share that certain people should not drink at all, including people who are younger than 21, pregnant, suffering from certain medical conditions or taking certain medications that may interact negatively with alcohol. People who are planning to drive should not drink alcohol.

What Can I Do to Limit My Alcohol Use and Its Effects on My Health?Friends playing board game at home.

  • Adhere to the recommended limits for moderate drinking. You can do this by not drinking at all or by following the guidelines of no more than one drink for women and two drinks for men per day. Remember that some emerging research suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of death from various causes, including several types of cancer and forms of cardiovascular disease.
  • Avoid using alcohol when using other substances. Using alcohol and other substances together is unsafe because the effects may be stronger and more unpredictable – even deadly. For example, drinking alcohol while using opioids increases the risk of overdose and death.
  • Talk to your health care provider. Your health care provider can help you determine if your drinking is having an impact on your health. You can also discuss medications you’re taking that may interact with alcohol.
  • Learn how alcohol use is connected to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), people with PTSD are more likely to have problems related to alcohol use. If you suffer from PTSD, check out Connecting the Dots: PTSD, Alcohol Use and the Support You Need to learn more about how treating your PTSD can improve your relationship with alcohol.
  • Try looking for ways to reduce your alcohol use in social settings. Since alcohol may be a big part of our social lives, try looking for ways to change that. Host a social gathering centered around a game night or an outdoor activity instead of drinking. Or have a night where you serve interesting nonalcoholic drinks or “mocktails.” VA offers fun recipes like the cranberry-rosemary sparkler recipe or blueberry kombucha spritzer recipe.
  • Keep track. You may not even realize how many nights a week you’re drinking or how many drinks you’re having when you do drink. Keep track of your drinking habits and put limits in place. Maybe designate a certain day or two of the week that you can have a drink after work, instead of drinking nightly. Or limit yourself to one or two drinks at parties before you switch to something nonalcoholic.
  • Find healthier ways to manage your stress. Many of us turn to drinking as a way to cope with stress or relax after a tough day, but it’s important to have healthier ways to manage. Check out these tips for improving your emotional wellness, including practicing gratitude, exercising, using meditation and more.
  • Get the support you need. If you find you’re having difficulty cutting down on your drinking or realize that your drinking is interfering with your work or family responsibilities, you may need support to help you gain control. Check out the resources below to learn more.

What Resources Are Available to Support Me?

  • College drinkingprevention.gov offers a lot of information on alcohol use, including myths many people believe about drinking, as well as a calorie and cost calculator so you can see the amount of calories and money you’re spending on alcohol.
  • The CDC provides a lot of information, resources and tools to help you identify the risks related to drinking, including the Alcohol Use Screening Tool to check if your drinking has become a problem.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a free, confidential treatment referral and informational helpline for anyone facing mental health or substance use disorders.
  • VA offers treatment options designed to help you manage your alcohol use including:
    • Medications
    • Counseling options
    • Evidence-based therapy options such as cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing and more
    • Treatment for related health conditions such as depression and PTSD

By learning more about alcohol’s impact on your body, you can make better decisions about your alcohol consumption. If you feel like your alcohol use is starting to become unhealthy or you’re dealing with long-term addiction, reach out and get the support you deserve.

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