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Alcohol abuse can have a range of negative impacts on a person’s life—from social, to psychological, to economic. But among the most severe are the effects of chronic, excessive alcohol use on the human body.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol-related chronic illnesses were responsible for over 51,000 deaths annually in the US between 2011 and 2015.
Does this mean that any amount of alcohol is unsafe? Not necessarily. But if you find that you sometimes drink too much, or too frequently, it’s important to be aware of the risks.
This article will discuss some of the most common and serious diseases caused by drinking too much alcohol, and how you can protect yourself.
Alcohol and Your Body
When a person drinks alcohol, it gets absorbed through the stomach or small intestine and enters their bloodstream. It is then gradually processed and removed by the liver.
In small amounts, a healthy liver has little trouble breaking down and eliminating alcohol. But when you drink excessively, the liver can fall behind. The resulting buildup of alcohol in your system is what causes the sensation of intoxication. It can also place stress on a number of vital organs and systems within your body.
As alcohol gets broken down, it also generates a number of toxic byproducts, including harmful fatty acids and free radicals, and a chemical called acetaldehyde. Each of these can cause harm to various body tissues.
In other words, despite the pleasant effects alcohol can have in small amounts, it is a toxic substance. The more you drink, the more wear and tear you put on your system, and the more likely it is that alcohol will cause or influence one of many acute or chronic diseases.
But which diseases are caused by alcohol? And how much alcohol puts you at risk?
Below are some of the most common and most serious diseases caused by alcohol.
Some illnesses, such as alcoholic cirrhosis or alcohol use disorder, are directly linked to alcohol. This means that drinking is the exact cause. Some, such as cancer and heart disease, are indirectly linked. This means alcohol raises your overall risk, in combination with other factors. But each of these diseases are an important reason to limit your consumption, and pay careful attention to your overall wellness if you drink.
Perhaps the best known impact of alcohol abuse on the body is liver damage.
The liver serves many important functions in our bodies, including drug metabolism, waste removal, energy storage, and clotting factor production. The liver is also incredibly resilient, and can sometimes regenerate after being damaged.
But even this miraculous organ has its limits. As the main route for alcohol breakdown, the liver takes a huge hit from heavy drinking. Liver damage from alcohol occurs along a spectrum, with different levels of severity:
- Fatty Liver Disease – Fat deposits increase liver size and impair normal functioning
- Alcoholic Hepatitis – Inflammation and cell death occur
- Cirrhosis – Severe scarring, which may progress to liver failure
While some stages of liver disease may be reversible, cirrhosis often carries a poor prognosis, and may necessitate a liver transplant. Liver disease is the 11th leading cause of death in the US, and estimates in 2018 showed that nearly 48 percent of all liver disease deaths were alcohol-related.
Alcohol is classified as a known human carcinogen, and is linked to numerous forms of cancer, including:
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Cancers of the mouth and throat
- Larynx cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Liver cancer
Considering the overall negative effects of alcohol on the liver, this last one may not be surprising. But how exactly does alcohol increase cancer risk in general?
There are several ways this can happen. The toxins produced during the breakdown of alcohol can damage DNA and proteins, leading to abnormal cell growth. Drinking heavily can also lead to a decreased absorption of critical nutrients, increased estrogen levels, and damage to existing cells. There are further indirect links, including alcohol’s impact on obesity.
The average volume of alcohol you consume seems to be the biggest factor in this connection, so any reduction in how much you drink can make a difference.
We often hear that red wine is good for heart health, but this can be misleading. While some evidence shows that moderate drinking can reduce your risk of heart disease, heavy drinking and binge drinking have quite the opposite effect.
While we still don’t fully understand how alcohol damages the heart, acetaldehyde and free radical buildup probably play a role. These can cause cellular damage and inflammation, impair conduction, and place stress on cardiac tissue, leading to problems such as:
- Heart attack and stroke
- Heart failure
- Cardiomyopathy (dilation of the heart)
A large study of California residents between 2005 and 2009 found that alcohol abuse more than doubled the risk of both atrial fibrillation and heart failure, and increased risk of heart attack by 30 percent. Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer in the United States and worldwide.
The pancreas has two primary responsibilities: It produces digestive enzymes that break down food, and secretes insulin to maintain blood sugar levels.
While the liver does most of the work of processing alcohol, the pancreas also plays an important role. Alcohol’s toxic byproducts can damage enzyme-secreting cells in the pancreas (also called acinar cells), and clog pancreatic ducts. This can cause an inflammatory condition known as pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis can occur as an acute episode, followed by recovery, or become a chronic condition. Moderate to severe abdominal pain is the most common symptom. In some cases, pancreatitis can lead to life-threatening complications, including infections, damage to other organs, and cancer.
Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis, and the second leading cause of acute pancreatitis. Four or more drinks a day can significantly increase your risk for this disease.
As with heart disease, alcohol and diabetes have a complicated relationship. Studies suggest that heavy drinking increases your risk for this disease, while occasional, moderate drinking may actually help.
Why this two-way relationship? It seems that small amounts of alcohol can increase insulin sensitivity, making it easier for you to regulate your blood sugar. Regular, heavy drinking, on the other hand, can contribute to poor eating habits, high blood pressure, and decreased physical activity. It can also damage the pancreas, disrupting insulin secretion.
In one ten year study, women between 25 and 42 years of age who drank at least 30 grams a day of hard liquor had 2.5 times the risk of developing diabetes, compared with those who didn’t. In another study, people who had three or more drinks per day showed up to a 43% increase in diabetes versus moderate drinkers.
Drinking too much has certain obvious, immediate effects on the brain—from poor balance, to slurred speech, and memory lapses. Although these generally clear up quickly the morning after, chronic drinking can cause severe, lasting brain damage for some people. These problems include:
- Epilepsy – Alcohol-induced seizures are often associated with withdrawal, but excessive drinking can also lead to seizures that have nothing to do with “cold turkey.” One meta-analysis showed a more than two-fold increase in overall risk of epilepsy for heavy drinkers, compared to abstainers.
- Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome – This debilitating brain disease results from thiamine deficiency, a common nutritional problem in alcohol abuse. People with this illness can experience severe symptoms, such as memory loss, nerve damage, confusion, poor coordination, visual disturbances, and psychosis.
- Hepatic Encephalopathy – Alcohol-induced liver disease can cause dangerous levels of ammonia in the brain, leading to poor coordination, cognitive deficits, and in severe cases, coma and even death.
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Alcohol addiction is a disease, and it goes without saying that the more you drink, the higher your risk is for developing this disorder.
Consuming alcohol activates the reward center in the brain through dopamine release, increasing a person’s desire to keep drinking. The brain has checks and balances that normally control this desire, but chronic alcohol exposure can damage these. The result can be an inability to stop drinking despite harmful consequences.
Of course, not everyone who drinks develops AUD. Other factors, such as genetics and emotional well-being, can play a role. But heavy drinking on its own is a major factor. With 14.4 million adults suffering from alcohol use disorder in 2018, it’s important to be aware of the risks of excessive drinking, and the other serious health conditions it can lead to.
How To Prevent Diseases Caused by Alcohol
Heavy alcohol use affects nearly every system in the human body, and the more you consume, the more severe the impact. If you are concerned that drinking might be causing you health problems, but not ready to quit altogether, even reducing your intake can make a difference.
Ria Health’s program is one way to cut back or quit drinking without turning your life upside down. We offer comprehensive support from an app on your smartphone— including expert medical care, recovery coaching, prescriptions for anti-craving medications, and online support groups. Members set their own goals, and we help them every step of the way.
Schedule a call with a member of our team to learn more.