Alcohol Effects on Overall Health
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Alcohol consumption can have a negative impact in a variety of ways.
It can damage both physical and mental health and harm important relationships. It can negatively influence careers and cause significant damage to health in both the short term and the long term.
Alcohol is incredibly addictive, often leading to alcohol use disorders (AUD) with repeated misuse. If you develop an AUD, it is difficult to quit without professional help.
What Constitutes Unhealthy Drinking?
An “unhealthy” amount of drinking is going to vary from person to person.
Some people shouldn’t drink at all. For example, someone who is pregnant shouldn’t drink, as it can negatively affect the health of the developing fetus. Someone in recovery from alcoholism likely shouldn’t drink, as it can lead to relapse.
With this said, there are also broad drinking recommendations that can apply to the average person, even if they’re not at a higher risk of alcohol-related health complications.
While there are slight differences in recommendations depending on the health organization referenced, the general recommendation is to either avoid alcohol completely or to only engage in moderate drinking. Moderate drinking is defined by the USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women.
Drinking even at a moderate level is associated with a higher risk of cancer. Drinking more than a moderate amount on a consistent basis is associated with a variety of health risks, some of which can be life-threatening.
Organs Affected by Alcohol
On some level, alcohol has the potential to affect almost every organ in the body. These are some of the organs it has the most significant impact on:
Brain & Nervous System
Alcohol is a depressant, causing various effects on the brain. It can reduce a person’s inhibitions, slow their reaction time, and often make them feel more relaxed.
With heavier drinking, a person can begin to lose significant coordination, slur their speech, and experience a loss of focus in their vision.
With very heavy use, a person may experience alcohol poisoning, where key life-support systems in their brain work improperly, and important organs become heavily taxed, which can be life-threatening. Consistent heavy drinking has the potential to cause serious brain damage, some of which may be permanent.
Regular alcohol consumption can also cause a person to develop physical dependence, as their brain and nervous system adjust to their heavy drug use. The body and brain become so accustomed to the presence of alcohol that they are unable to function normally in its absence. This means they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit drinking.
If someone is dependent on alcohol, they should not attempt to suddenly stop drinking on their own. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening in some instances, so it’s important to get medical assistance during alcohol withdrawal if you have been engaging in long-term or high levels of alcohol consumption.
Despite its legal nature, alcohol should be considered highly addictive when misused. It is a drug with significant abuse potential, especially because of its wide availability.
Heavy alcohol use can cause a person to develop high blood pressure and see a spike in their blood cholesterol levels. This raises a person’s risk of both stroke and heart attack.
Over time, this can weaken the heart and cause an abnormal heartbeat. People who have alcohol use disorder are at higher risk for heart failure and heart attacks.
One of alcohol’s more well-known effects is its ability to cause liver damage, with alcohol use increasing a person’s risk of liver disease and liver cancer.
The liver is a key part of processing alcohol, but it can only safely process so much at once. As the liver is taxed by heavy alcohol use, it can become damaged.
One sign of liver damage is jaundice, which causes a person’s eyes and skin to become tinted yellow.
One long-term health risk associated with alcohol use is pancreatitis, where the pancreas becomes inflamed and may become permanently damaged. This has the potential to cause severe pain in the abdomen, feverish temperatures, and a general feeling of being sick.
Short-Term & Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol misuse comes with a bevy of both short-term and long-term effects.
The short-term effects of alcohol, which increase in severity the more a person drinks, include the following:
- Reduced inhibitions
- Increased risk of interpersonal conflict
- Increased risk of falls and accidents
- Altered behaviors patterns, specifically with an increased risk of risky and violent behavior
- The potential for alcohol poisoning
- An unpleasant hangover after alcohol has worn off
Alcohol affects people differently, with two major factors being the amount of alcohol a person consumes and their size. Generally speaking, larger people need to drink a larger amount of alcohol than smaller people to experience the same level of effect.
Alcohol also affects women more strongly than men, with men tending to need to drink more than women to get the same effects.
In the long term, alcohol use can cause a long list of complications, many of which have been discussed above. It’s said alcohol can contribute to more than 200 kinds of injuries and diseases.
Some long-term harms associated with alcohol use include the following:
- Deterioration of important relationships
- Financial difficulties
- Increased risk of legal trouble
- Greatly increased risk of accident, especially if used while operating vehicles or other machinery
- Risk of unwanted pregnancy
- The development of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression
- Interference with medications, including those used to treat mental health problems
- Increased risk of self-harm and suicide
- Various physical health problems, including higher cholesterol levels and a variety of heightened disease risks
Relevant Stats on Alcohol Misuse
In the United States and many other countries, alcohol use is commonplace. Some relevant statistics, most of which come from a 2019 survey, referenced by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism include the following:
- An estimated 1.7 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD), with girls tending to have a higher rate of AUD than boys.
- An estimated 5.3 percent of people ages 12 and older suffer from AUD, with the rate of AUD almost double among men in this age group compared to women.
- Less than 10 percent of people who have had AUD in the past year (as of the 2019 survey) received any treatment.
- Alcohol contributes to 18.5 percent of emergency department visits, and 22.1 percent of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths.
- As much as 5 percent or more of global deaths are attributable in some significant way to alcohol consumption.
How to Stop Drinking
Considering all the above, there are plenty of reasons a person should stop drinking or at least reduce their alcohol consumption to the recommended “moderate” baseline. However, that is often easier said than done.
Alcohol can cause physical and psychological dependence. Again, greater than 5 percent of adults suffer from AUD, commonly called alcoholism or alcohol addiction.
If you want to stop drinking but find you’re struggling, professional help is needed. Addiction recovery is a difficult process, and again, alcohol withdrawal can actually be life-threatening in severe cases. Health professionals specializing in addiction treatment can help you form a treatment plan based on the best modern treatments available that meet your needs.
Often the first step, at least after forming a treatment plan, is to undergo withdrawal at an addiction treatment facility. The detox process is much safer at these facilities due to the professional help available. There is a lower chance of relapsing back into alcohol use in these facilities, as there are more barriers to getting and consuming alcohol compared to if you were at home.
Benzodiazepines are often used during alcohol withdrawal to keep withdrawal symptoms under control. These medications can prevent and treat delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can be fatal.
In alcohol addiction treatment, most people will benefit from a combination of talk therapy, counseling, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). The goal is to help you abstain from alcohol misuse and also to identify what may be drawing you to misuse alcohol in the first place.
In therapy, you will learn strategies to better avoid alcohol and channel negative feelings in healthier ways. You will also learn approaches to build a strong support network of people that can be a positive, helpful influence in your recovery process.
Taking the First Step
Addiction recovery isn’t easy, but it’s always possible with the right amount of consistent effort and a willingness to talk to professionals and listen to their advice. Even if you’ve tried and failed to quit drinking in the past, there is hope for a better tomorrow. With the right help, you can slowly progress toward a healthier lifestyle and regaining control over your life.
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