Diseases Caused By AlcoholReady for a change in your relationship with alcohol? Ria Health offers evidence-based treatment from an app on your phone.
Alcohol can enter and affect nearly every part of your system—from your brain, to your circulation and digestion. While moderate drinking often carries few risks, there are a number of serious, and even life-threatening diseases caused by alcohol in large amounts.
Why is this the case? Put simply, alcohol is toxic to your body. In smaller amounts, your liver (if it’s healthy) is very efficient at removing this toxin from your system. But when alcohol builds up to large amounts, it can put stress on nearly every part of your body it reaches until it leaves. This means that the more you drink—and the more often—the higher your risk for damage from alcohol.
We still don’t know exactly how alcohol causes every illness linked to it. But we do know that drinking compromises your immune system, causes inflammation in many parts of your body, and even causes cell damage1 as it is metabolized. And the damage from heavy drinking is significant: 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 2015.2
So, which diseases are caused by alcohol, and how much drinking puts you at risk? Below, we’ll cover some of the most common alcohol-related diseases, what the risks are, and how you can protect your health long-term.
Read More: Alcohol and Your Health
Table of Contents
Liver damage may be the most well-known consequence of alcohol abuse. The liver serves many crucial functions3 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:4
- 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 has a poor outcome and may require a liver transplant. Liver disease is the 11th leading cause of death5 in the US. By 2019 estimates, at least 43 percent6 of all liver disease deaths among people aged 12 and older were alcohol-related.
Read more: Early Signs of Liver Damage From Alcohol
Alcohol and Cancer
Alcohol is classified as a “known human carcinogen.”7 Drinking alcohol is linked to numerous forms of cancer, including:
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Cancers of the mouth and throat
- Laryngeal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Liver cancer
There are several reasons for this link.8 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 alcohol9 you consume seems to be the biggest factor in this connection, so any reduction in how much you drink can make a difference.
Read more: Alcohol and Cancer Risk
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,10 heavy drinking and binge drinking have quite the opposite effect.
While we still don’t fully understand how alcohol damages the heart,11 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 residents12 between 2005 and 2009 found that alcohol abuse more than doubled the risk of both atrial fibrillation13 and heart failure, and increased risk of heart attack by 30 percent. Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer14 in the United States and worldwide.
Read more: Alcohol and Heart Disease
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.15 Alcohol’s toxic byproducts can damage enzyme-secreting cells in the pancreas (also called acinar cells),16 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 day17 can significantly increase your risk for this disease.
Read more: Alcohol and Pancreatitis
Diabetes and Alcohol
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,18 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 risk19 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 diabetes20 versus moderate drinkers.
Read more: Alcohol and Diabetes
Excessive drinking can irritate and inflame the lining of your stomach, causing a condition known as gastritis. This illness can be either chronic or acute; while many people develop gastritis after years of heavy drinking, even a single binging episode can cause it.
Symptoms of alcoholic gastritis can be as mild as a slight pain beneath your ribs, and may sometimes go unnoticed. However, this illness can become quite painful, and even life-threatening in some situations. Chronic cases of gastritis can cause stomach bleeding and iron-deficiency anemia, interfere with proper digestion, increase your risk for stomach cancer,21 and lead to peptic ulcers22 that require surgery.
While acute alcoholic gastritis may resolve within a week or so, chronic cases can take months to heal. You’ll need to quit drinking to recover completely.
More generally, heavy alcohol use can cause inflammation throughout your digestive system, throw your gut bacteria off balance, and interfere with healthy nutrient absorption. This is a major reason why many people with alcohol use disorder also suffer from malnutrition.
Read more: Alcoholic Gastritis
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-analysis23 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,24 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 ammonia25 in the brain, leading to poor coordination, cognitive deficits, and in severe cases, coma and even death.
Read more: What Is Wet Brain?
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 14.5 million26 people aged 12 and older suffering from alcohol use disorder in 2019, it’s important to be aware of this condition, and the serious health conditions it can lead to.
Read More: What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?
How To Prevent Diseases Caused by Alcohol Abuse
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.
Learn more about how it works, or get started today.