Alcohol and Health: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol may offer some health benefits. However, heavy drinking can have a negative impact on your mood and the function of your brain, heart, and other bodily systems.
The truth is that the health effects of alcohol vary between individuals and may depend on the amount and type of alcohol consumed.
This article discusses how alcohol affects your health.
What is alcohol?
The main psychoactive ingredient in alcoholic beverages is ethanol.
Generally referred to as “alcohol,” ethanol is the substance that makes you drunk.
It’s produced by yeasts that digest sugar in certain carb-rich foods, such as grapes — used to make wine — or grains — used to make beer.
Alcohol is one of the most popular psychoactive substances in the world. It can have powerful effects on your mood and mental state.
By reducing self-consciousness and shyness, alcohol may encourage people to act without inhibition. At the same time, it impairs judgment and may promote behavior people may end up regretting (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source).
Some people drink small amounts at a time, while others tend to binge drink. Binge drinking involves drinking large amounts at a time.
Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks, is generally referred to as “alcohol.” It can have powerful effects on your mental state.
Your liver’s role
Your liver is a remarkable organ with hundreds of essential functions.
One of its main roles is to neutralize various toxic substances you consume. For this reason, your liver is particularly vulnerable to damage by alcohol intake (3Trusted Source).
Liver diseases caused by alcohol consumption are collectively known as alcoholic liver diseases.
The first of these to appear is fatty liver, characterized by increased fat inside liver cells.
Fatty liver gradually develops in 90% of those who drink more than a 1/2 ounce (15 ml) of alcohol per day (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
In heavy drinkers, binge drinking may cause your liver to become inflamed. In worst-case scenarios, liver cells die and get replaced with scar tissue, leading to a serious condition called cirrhosis (3Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
Cirrhosis is irreversible and associated with many serious health problems. In advanced cirrhosis, a liver transplant may be the only option.
Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, and frequent intake can lead to increased fat inside liver cells. Alcohol abuse can lead to cirrhosis, a very serious condition.
Impact on your brain
Excessive alcohol consumption can have numerous adverse effects on your brain.
Ethanol reduces communication between brain cells — a short-term effect responsible for many of the symptoms of being drunk.
Binge drinking may even lead to a blackout, a phenomenon characterized by memory loss, or amnesia, during a heavy drinking episode (8Trusted Source).
These effects are only temporary, but chronic alcohol abuse may cause permanent changes in your brain, often leading to impaired brain function (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
Because your brain is very sensitive to damage, chronic alcohol abuse may increase your risk of dementia and cause brain shrinkage in middle-aged and older adults (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
In worst-case scenarios, severe alcohol-induced brain damage may impair people’s ability to lead an independent life.
Conversely, drinking moderately has been linked to a reduced risk of dementia — especially in older adults (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
While alcohol intoxication is only temporary, chronic alcohol abuse can impair brain function permanently. However, moderate drinking may have benefits for brain health — especially among older adults.
Alcohol intake and depression are closely but complexly associated (19Trusted Source).
While alcohol intake and depression seem to increase the risk of one another simultaneously, alcohol abuse may be the stronger causal factor (20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).
Many people facing anxiety and depression drink intentionally to reduce stress and improve mood. While drinking may provide a few hours of relief, it may worsen your overall mental health and spark a vicious cycle (23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
In fact, because heavy drinking is a major cause of depression in some individuals, treating the underlying alcohol abuse may lead to big improvements (25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source).
Alcohol abuse and depression are linked. People may start abusing alcohol due to depression or become depressed by abusing alcohol.
Obesity is a serious health concern.
Alcohol is the second most calorie-rich nutrient after fat — packing about 7 calories per gram.
Beer has a similar number of calories as sugary soft drinks, ounce for ounce, whereas red wine has twice as much (28, 29, 30).
However, studies investigating the link between alcohol and weight have provided inconsistent results (31Trusted Source).
It seems that drinking habits and preferences may play a role.
For example, light to moderate drinking is linked to reduced weight gain, whereas heavy drinking is linked to increased weight gain (32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source).
In fact — while drinking beer regularly may cause an increase in waist circumference — the well-known “beer belly” — wine consumption may have the opposite effect (31Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
The evidence on alcohol and weight gain is mixed. Heavy drinking and beer are linked to increased weight gain, while light to moderate drinking and wine are linked to reduced weight gain.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in modern society.
It is a broad category of diseases, the most common of which are coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
The relationship between alcohol and heart disease is complex and depends on several factors.
Light to moderate drinking is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, while heavy drinking appears to increase the risk (37Trusted Source, 38Trusted Source, 39Trusted Source, 40Trusted Source).
However, the American Heart Association stresses that if you don’t drink, don’t start, and if you do drink, it is crucial to limit how much you drink (41).
There are several possible reasons for the beneficial effects of drinking moderately.
Moderate alcohol consumption may:
Raise “good” HDL cholesterol in your bloodstream (42Trusted Source).
Lower your blood concentration of fibrinogen, a substance that contributes to blood clots (43Trusted Source).
Cut the risk of diabetes, another major risk factor for heart disease (44Trusted Source).
Reduce stress and anxiety temporarily (41Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
While moderate alcohol consumption may reduce your risk of heart disease, heavy drinking may increase it.
Type 2 diabetes affects about 8% of the world’s population (46Trusted Source).
Characterized by abnormally high blood sugar, type 2 diabetes is caused by a reduced uptake of glucose, or blood sugar, by your cells — a phenomenon known as insulin resistance.
Drinking alcohol in moderation appears to reduce insulin resistance, fighting the main symptoms of diabetes (47Trusted Source, 48Trusted Source, 49Trusted Source, 50Trusted Source).
As a result, drinking alcohol with meals may cut the rise in blood sugar by 16–37% more than water. Blood sugar between meals — known as fasting blood glucose — may also decline (51Trusted Source, 52Trusted Source).
In fact, your overall diabetes risk tends to drop with moderate alcohol consumption. However, when it comes to heavy drinking and binge drinking, your risk rises (53Trusted Source, 54Trusted Source, 55Trusted Source, 56Trusted Source).
Moderate alcohol consumption may reduce symptoms of type 2 diabetes by enhancing the uptake of blood sugar by your cells.
Cancer is a serious disease caused by abnormal growth of cells.
Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, colon, breast and liver (57Trusted Source, 58Trusted Source, 59Trusted Source).
The cells lining your mouth and throat are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol.
Even light alcohol consumption — up to one drink per day — is linked to a 20% increased risk of mouth and throat cancer (59Trusted Source, 60Trusted Source).
Your risk increases the more you consume. More than four drinks daily appear to cause a fivefold increase in your risk of mouth and throat cancer, as well as an increase in your risk of breast, colon and liver cancer (58Trusted Source, 59Trusted Source, 61Trusted Source, 62Trusted Source).
Drinking alcohol may increase your risk of certain cancers, especially mouth and throat cancer.
May cause birth defects
Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of birth defects in the US. Drinking while pregnant can lead to abnormal facial features, low birth weight, central nervous system problems, and other serious issues (63Trusted Source, 64Trusted Source).
Binge drinking early in pregnancy is particularly risky for the developing baby (65Trusted Source).
In fact, it may have adverse effects on development, growth, intelligence and behavior — which may affect the child for the rest of its life (63Trusted Source).
Alcohol abuse is one of the world’s most common causes of birth defects. The fetus is particularly vulnerable early in pregnancy.
Risk of death
It may be hard to believe, but alcohol may help you live longer.
Studies suggest that light and moderate consumption of alcohol may cut the risk of premature death — especially in Western societies (66Trusted Source, 67Trusted Source).
Simultaneously, alcohol abuse is the third main cause of preventable death in the US, as it’s a large factor in chronic diseases, accidents, traffic crashes and social problems (68Trusted Source).
Moderate alcohol consumption may increase life expectancy, while alcohol abuse is a strong risk factor for premature death.
Dangers of addiction
Some people become addicted to the effects of alcohol, a condition known as alcohol dependence or alcoholism.
An estimated 12% of Americans are believed to have been dependent on alcohol at some point in their life (69Trusted Source).
Alcohol dependence is one of the main causes of alcohol abuse and disability in the US and a strong risk factor for various diseases (70Trusted Source).
Numerous factors can predispose people to problematic drinking, such as family history, social environment, mental health and genetics.
Many different subtypes of alcohol dependence exist, characterized by alcohol cravings, inability to abstain or loss of self-control when drinking (71).
As a rule of thumb, if alcohol is adversely affecting your quality of life, you may have a problem with alcohol dependence or alcoholism.
Alcohol consumption can lead to alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, in predisposed individuals.
Abuse is disastrous for health
Heavy drinking is the most common form of drug abuse.
Chronic alcohol abuse can have catastrophic health effects, impacting your entire body and causing a range of health problems.
For example, it can cause liver damage — including cirrhosis — brain damage, heart failure, diabetes, cancer and susceptibility to infections (9Trusted Source, 54Trusted Source, 58Trusted Source, 72Trusted Source, 73Trusted Source, 74Trusted Source).
If you are a heavy drinker, following a healthy diet and exercise routine will still be beneficial for your health, but not as much as getting your alcohol consumption under control, or abstaining completely.
Chronic alcohol abuse can wreak havoc on your body and brain, increasing your risk of many diseases.