Alcohol consumption in any amount can have a variety of adverse effects on physical health, including both short-term and long-term impacts. These negative impacts include more than the familiar liver complications. Additionally, alcohol use can be extremely detrimental to those who have diabetes, can negatively impact a healthy person’s immune system, and has been linked to certain cancers.
Alcohol absorbs into the blood when upon consumption. Immediately after consumption, the blood absorbs about 33% of the alcohol through the stomach lining. The rest slowly diffuses into the blood through the small intestine. 1
The bloodstream carries the alcohol to the liver, and the liver metabolizes a certain amount of it. The rest of the alcohol circulates throughout the body. Blood alcohol level (BAL) increases when someone consumes more alcohol than their body can metabolize. BAL slows down the respiratory system, which interrupts the brain’s oxygen supply. This interruption can result in a fatality or the coma stage. 1
While alcohol on its own does not contain much sugar, many mixed alcohol beverages include additional ingredients that contain a high amount of added sugar. For example, a 4-ounce pina colada contains 28 grams of added sugar, a 4-ounce daiquiri has 6.7 grams of sugar, and a 1.5-ounce shot of creme de menthe contains 21 grams of sugar. 2
Too much added sugar could cause weight gain, tooth decay, and even heart disease. In general, men shouldn’t consume more than 36 grams of sugar per day, and women shouldn’t consume more than 24 grams. When drinking, it is better to stick with beer, wine, or hard liquor to avoid consuming too much sugar. 2 However, even though these drinks do not contain much sugar, they can negatively affect health in other ways.
Regular consumption of alcohol can result in burdensome and harmful short-term and long-term health effects. These effects can negatively alter the mental health and lifestyle of an individual who drinks alcohol. 1
The severity of short-term effects of alcohol use varies depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and the metabolizing composition of a body.
Regular and consistent drinking can result in kidney damage, even without binge drinking. Damage to the kidneys due to heavy drinking is a slow process, but regularly heavy drinking can double the risk of chronic kidney disease, which does not go away. 4
The kidneys are responsible for filtering harmful substances, including alcohol. The kidneys of heavy drinkers have to work harder, which causes changes in their function and reduces their ability to filter the blood. Alcohol also dries out the body and can disrupt hormones which can affect the kidneys’ normal functioning.4
Alcohol disrupts the communication pathways in the brain and can affect how it looks and works. These changes can alter mood and behavior and can cause foggy thoughts and coordination issues.5 Drinking heavily over a long time can change and shrink cells in the brain and even shrink the entire brain. These changes affect someone’s overall ability to think, learn, and remember things.3
Alcohol also interferes with the neurotransmitter called glutamate, affecting memory and potentially resulting in total blackout. This interference can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which impairs memory and can cause someone to develop seizures. Levels of neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), endorphin, and dopamine increase, leading to hallucinations, aggression, infertility, fatigue, and dyspnea.1
Consistent drinking over a long time or heavily drinking too much in a single day or night can cause damage to the heart. Heart problems that can result from drinking include: 5
Drinking can also stimulate myocarditis or inflammation in the cardiac muscle and can increase cholesterol levels. 1
Excessive drinking can lead to a variety of problems with the liver. These issues include:
Heavy alcohol use causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances. Eventually, this production can lead to pancreatitis, which is the inflammation and swelling of the pancreas’ blood vessels. 5 Pancreatitis is dangerous and can prevent proper digestion and reduce the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin, which can result in diabetes. 1
The consumption of alcohol can negatively affect someone with diabetes by creating dangerously low blood sugar. When alcohol is consumed, the liver focuses on removing alcohol from the blood instead of managing blood sugar levels. Additionally, the cognitive impairment caused by drinking can lead to situational unawareness of low blood sugar.7 Alcohol can have additional impacts on someone who has diabetes.
The first contact for alcohol in the body is typically the gastrointestinal (GI) system, where alcohol absorbs into the bloodstream. Alcohol immediately affects the GI tract structure by altering the number of microbes in the gut microbiome, which is responsible for aiding in normal gut function and affects the immune system. Alcohol disrupts communication between organisms in the microbiome and the intestinal immune system. 8
Alcohol’s impact on the immune system can lead to things like increased susceptibility to pneumonia. This association is also linked with a greater likelihood of acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), sepsis, alcohol liver disease (ALD), higher incidence of postoperative complications, slower and incomplete recovery from infection, and physical trauma (including poor wound healing). 8
All alcoholic beverages have the potential to cause cancer. These beverages include red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor. The more alcohol someone consumes, the higher their risk of developing cancer.9
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a known human carcinogen. In 2009, about 3.5% of cancer deaths in the US (19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related.10
The body breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde, damaging the DNA, which controls a cell’s normal function and growth, and prevents the body from repairing this damage. 9 Alcohol also generates reactive oxygen species that, through oxidation, can also damage the DNA and proteins and lipids (fats) in the body. 10 When the DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing uncontrollably and create a cancer tumor. 9
Additionally, alcohol can impair the body’s ability to break down and absorb many different nutrients such as vitamin A, nutrients in the vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and carotenoids. Alcohol can also increase the blood levels of estrogen, which is linked to breast cancer. Alcohol may also contain carcinogens such as nitrosamines, asbestos fibers, phenols, and hydrocarbons. 10
Drinking alcohol can increase someone’s risk of developing esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer in women, and colon and rectum cancer. 9 Alcohol consumption can also increase someone’s risk of head and neck cancers, including cancers in the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), and larynx (voice box). 10
Those who consume alcohol in any amount are 1.3 times (light drinkers) to 5 times (heavy drinkers) more likely than non-drinkers to develop a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. People who have a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol are even more likely to develop esophageal squamous cell carcinoma if they consume any alcohol at all.10
Those who are heavy drinkers are twice as likely as non-drinkers to develop two types of liver cancer. These liver cancers are known as hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma.10
The risk of breast cancer increases as the level of alcohol intake increases. Those who are light drinkers are 1.04 times more likely than non-drinkers to develop breast cancer. Those who are moderate drinkers are 1.23 times more likely to develop breast cancer, and those who are heavy drinkers are 1.6 times more likely. Among women, light to moderate drinkers are 1.13 times more likely to develop alcohol-related cancers, typically breast cancer.10
Those who are moderate drinkers are 1.8 times more likely than those who don’t drink to develop oral cavity and pharynx cancers and are 1.4 times more likely to develop larynx cancers. Heavy drinkers are five times more likely than non-drinkers to develop cavity and pharynx cancers and are 2.6 times more likely to develop larynx cancers.10
If you or someone you love is struggling to stop drinking, many medical professionals and treatment centers can effectively address your needs. Please do not hesitate to reach out and get the help you need. You are not alone.