Last Updated on March 17, 2021
How many times have you heard that a glass of red wine is good for your health? Or that one drink can safely melt away the anxieties of a long day?
We often hear of new studies on the health benefits of alcohol—to the point where it can distract us from the known downsides. However, despite generating less attention in the media, it’s well known that drinking has many negative health impacts. Especially when consumed regularly, alcohol tends to do more harm than good.
Here are 12 common ways that drinking may make you worse off, both mentally and physically.
The most immediate way alcohol negatively affects your health is by giving you a hangover. This can range from basic headache and dry mouth symptoms, to severe nausea, vomiting, and anxiety. Many people assume these effects are caused by dehydration. However, poor sleep and the chemicals released by alcohol’s breakdown process are also to blame.
While there are a few hangover remedies you can try, the only sure way to avoid hangovers is to keep your drinking to a minimum.
#2 Alcohol Poisoning
If someone drinks more than their body can handle, they may end up in the emergency room for alcohol poisoning. While we may assume this only happens to young and inexperienced drinkers, it can happen to anyone who binge drinks. Even if you simply pass out, your blood alcohol level can keep rising while you’re sleeping. Alcohol poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage and death, so if you see someone who might be suffering from the symptoms, it’s important to get help.
#3 Brain Health
Alcohol has a number of negative short-term effects on your brain while you’re drinking. These include trouble concentrating, poor judgment, and slower reaction time. Long-term, the consequences are even more troubling:
- Frequent heavy drinking can cause several types of brain damage1, both directly and indirectly.
- Chronic alcohol use can lead to thiamine deficiency, which in turn can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome2. This disorder mostly affects alcohol-dependent people, and causes confusion, inability to coordinate movement, eye movement abnormalities, and memory loss.
- Studies show3 that binge drinkers expend more attentional effort to complete a task. They also have a harder time deciding which information is relevant or irrelevant.
#4 Increased Risk of Depression and Anxiety
Having a drink may reduce your social anxiety at a party, but it can actually make things worse in the long run. The next day, or even a few hours later4, you may feel increased anxiety and depression. In fact, having alcohol use disorder (AUD) may actually double your risk5 of having a depression disorder. It can even increase your risk of suicide significantly.
Alcohol can seem to soothe anxiety and depression at times, but in reality it tends to contribute to a negative feedback cycle, undermining your emotional well-being.
#5 Increased Risk of Injury
One of the best known side effects of drinking is a loss of coordination. If you consider yourself an experienced drinker, you may think you’re immune to these effects. However, studies suggest6 that heavier binge drinkers don’t develop greater tolerance to psychomotor skill impairment than light social drinkers.
This can have dangerous consequences, especially considering that heavy drinkers often misjudge how drunk they are. Loss of coordination combined with poor judgment and decision-making skills can lead to a variety of accidents. In 2015, New York City hospitals had about 435,000 injury visits7, and over 14,000 of these were alcohol-related.
#6 Damage to Organs & Increased Cancer Risk
Over time, excessive drinking can lead to conditions like alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, fatty liver, and liver disease. Drinking can also affect the pancreas and cause pancreatitis. The kidneys aren’t safe from alcohol either: The dehydration caused by drinking can affect kidney function8 and blood pressure, possibly leading to kidney disease. As if that weren’t enough, heavy drinking has been linked to pancreatic, liver, breast, mouth, throat, and colon cancer9.
#7 Digestion Issues
Aside from the pancreas, alcohol can also affect the stomach lining and the production of acid. This can contribute to ulcers and affect the breakdown of nutrients. Over time, this can cause nutrient deficiencies10 and blood sugar control problems.
Heavy drinking can also cause intestinal permeability, allowing for more toxins to enter the bloodstream from your digestive system. This can result in inflammation, which can be the root cause of many other health problems.
#8 Weight Changes
Each alcoholic drink has a considerable number of calories with no nutritional value. For example, that “harmless” glass of wine may contain more than 120 calories. If you think that’s bad, consider that many beers and cocktails are above 150 calories each11. Added up over time, that can equal weight gain. And as you probably know, obesity can cause health complications such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily may also neglect to eat and become underweight. High calorie and sugary cocktails make some people feel full and choose to skip meals. While these people may be meeting their calorie requirements, they’re missing out on the vitamins and minerals they would get from real food. This can compound the consequences of poor nutrient absorption, as discussed above.
#9 Sleep Problems
You might think that a drink before bed will make it easier to fall asleep, but this isn’t always the case. Research shows12 that during drinking and withdrawal periods, those with AUD commonly have trouble falling asleep, and a decreased total sleep time.
Even if you do manage to get to sleep, alcohol has been shown to reduce the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of rest. Skimping on this sleep stage could mean daytime drowsiness and trouble concentrating.
Those who frequently overdrink are also more likely to have sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea.
#10 Skin Conditions
- Porphyria cutanea tarda14
- Skin changes caused by liver cirrhosis (itching, jaundice, etc.)
#11 Hormones and Fertility
Alcohol changes hormone levels and can make irregular periods more likely, affecting a woman’s ovulation. Drinking may also affect male fertility. Heavy drinking reduces testosterone levels and may cause erectile dysfunction. A Danish study16 found that just five drinks a week could reduce sperm quality. For this reason, if you’re trying to conceive, both partners should limit alcohol consumption.
Beyond reproductive health, alcohol use generally increases estrogen levels. This may provide some benefits for older women, but it can also have negative consequences, including increased breast cancer risk17.
#12 Interfering with Medications
Drinking alcohol with many medications can cause harmful reactions, such as:
- Blood pressure changes
- Loss of coordination and accidents
- Liver damage
- Heart problems
Having no reaction doesn’t mean the combination is safe. Alcohol could still be making your medication less effective. And even if it’s okay to drink on your medication, the combination may make your hangover symptoms worse.
This is quite a list of health consequences. And although alcohol may have some minor health benefits, for many people the negatives will far outweigh the positives.
That said, you may not have to stop drinking completely to see improvements in your physical and mental health. Moderation can go a long way towards balancing the effects of alcohol on your body.
If you’re having trouble changing your drinking habits, we’re here to help. Ria Health’s telemedicine app combines anti-craving medication with coaching and digital tools to help you cut back or quit drinking. You don’t need to put your life on hold to change your relationship with alcohol. Get in touch with us today to learn more.