Is Alcohol Bad for You? How Much Is Too Much?
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
If you’re confused about alcohol and your health, you’re not alone.
For years, we’ve been told that mild-to-moderate alcohol consumption is part of a healthy lifestyle. But we’ve also heard that drinking could cause all sorts of short- and long-term problems.
Which is correct?
New research makes the risks of drinking clear. No amount of alcohol is safe. Any drink you take hurts your health.
If you don’t drink now, don’t start. If you do, here’s what you need to know about how your drinking could harm you.
Alcohol & Your Health: What the Research Says
Current research suggests that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe. If protecting your health is important to you, don’t drink.
Alcohol causes a significant amount of damage to multiple core body systems. But of all the issues it can cause, cancer is the most dangerous and prevalent. Researchers say low or moderate drinking levels spike cancer risks, increasing the more you drink.
Alcohol can offer mild or moderate cardiovascular benefits to women, but researchers say they’re offset by rising cancer risks. The safest amount for anyone to drink is nothing.
Experts say people who don’t drink now shouldn’t start. Don’t believe a new habit will keep you healthier, as the research suggests it won’t.
Alcohol’s Short-Term Risks
If you do drink now, what sorts of harm could you face in the next few days, weeks, or months? Understanding your short-term risks could motivate you to quit drinking. These are a few of the issues tied to alcohol.
Alcohol is a sedative, but as your drinks wear off, a rebound effect takes hold. You may feel tired when your head hits the pillow, but that could soon wear off.
A low amount of alcohol can decrease your sleep quality by almost 10 percent. A large amount of alcohol can reduce your sleep quality by almost 40 percent.
Drinking increases your reaction times, so you’re less likely to catch yourself when you fall or avoid a kitchen accident (like a cut). If you slide behind the wheel, your consequences grow yet more severe.
Every day, about 32 people die in drunk driving crashes in the United States. You could kill yourself or someone else in these episodes.
Immune System Weakness
Alcohol can block your body’s ability to defend against infection. The cold or flu roaring through your community could catch you after a bout of drinking.
The same issue could impair tissue healing, so you’ll stay sick longer.
All alcoholic beverages are packed with calories, and drinks are often paired with high-calorie snacks like chips and crackers. Adding even a few pounds to your waistline makes your heart, lungs, and bones work harder.
Alcohol’s Long-Term Risks
You know alcohol could harm you in the short term. But what happens if you keep drinking? These are a few of the issues tied to a chronic alcohol habit.
Drinking any amount of alcohol increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, researchers say.
If you have a family history of heart problems, or if you’ve had a heart issue in your past, drinking is especially dangerous. But anyone could damage their heart muscle, raise their blood pressure, and otherwise harm this delicate part of the body through a long relationship with alcohol.
Alcohol raises your risk of developing six types of cancer, including these cancers:
- Breast (in women)
- Colon and rectum
- Mouth and throat
- Voice box
Some forms of cancer can be successfully treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or medications.
But all of these therapies can be expensive or painful. And some can’t tackle aggressive forms of cancer that spread to other body systems.
Your liver metabolizes alcohol, and this hard-working organ is damaged by each drink you take. You can develop mild-to-moderate liver damage that fades as you stop drinking.
But you can also develop severe forms of the disease that leave you unable to filter toxins from your blood. This form of liver disease can be fatal without a transplant, and doctors won’t authorize this form of surgery in current drinkers.
Other Alcohol Side Effects You Should Understand
Alcohol’s health and safety impact are clear, but there’s more to share. Alcohol can also impact your choices while under the influence, and those decisions could reverberate long after you’re sober.
Alcohol loosens inhibitions and lowers your ability to reason. Alcohol can also make you trust people easily and bond with them quickly. All of these elements can add up to sexual encounters you never planned on.
Researchers say every 0.1 mg/ml rise in blood alcohol levels raises your likelihood of unprotected sex by 5 percent. You could emerge from a night of drinking with a sexually transmitted disease (like AIDS), or you could get pregnant.
Things that seem like a great idea when you’re drunk could be major mistakes when you’re sober. We all carry tiny cameras in our pockets, so the mistake you make while drunk may never go away.
You could do things in person (like accosting your boss or drunk-dialing your ex) that embarrass you. But photos of your exploits could also show up on social media, and future employers could see these photos when researching you after an interview.
Setting an Example
If you’re a parent, your children watch everything you do with rapt attention. If you’re consistently drunk, partying, or recovering from an episode, your children may grow up to do the same.
Your habits have a direct influence on how your children will interact with alcohol.
Excessive Alcohol Use & Your Health
Thresholds for excessive drinking are likely lower than you thought.
For women, four or more drinks on one occasion or eight or more per week qualifies as excessive. For men, five or more drinks on one occasion or fifteen or more per week counts.
Drinking like this is associated with very serious consequences.
Even one episode of hard drinking can lead to fat buildup in your liver. Stop drinking for two weeks, and your organ will heal. Keep drinking hard, and you could develop chronic liver disease.
Your liver can remove about one standard drink from your bloodstream per hour. If you keep drinking and alcohol builds, your body’s core functions can shut down. You may look tired or sedated, but you’re dying slowly. Every day, an average of six people die of alcohol poisoning in the United States.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Alcohol crosses from a mother’s body to her child’s through the placenta. No safe amount exists, as alcohol can harm a baby at any point during pregnancy.
Damage can even take hold before a woman knows she is pregnant.
People who drink heavily aren’t automatically addicted to alcohol. But if they keep drinking, they can cause persistent changes in their brains and bodies, and in time, they may need to drink to feel calm and collected.
The more you drink, the more likely it is that you’ll develop an alcohol use disorder.
If you know alcohol is dangerous but you’re unable to quit, get help. A treatment program could allow you to get sober safely, and then, you could learn how to stay sober for the rest of your life.
Every Alcoholic Drink Increases Your Risk of Cancer. (February 2021). Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
No Level of Alcohol Consumption Improves Health. (August 2018). The Lancet.
Alcohol Use and Your Health. (April 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alcohol and Sleep. (March 2022). Sleep Foundation.
Drunk Driving. United States Department of Transportation.
Alcohol and the Immune System. (2015). Alcohol Research Current Reviews.
Association of Habitual Alcohol Intake With Risk of Cardiovascular Disease. (March 2022). JAMA.
Alcohol and Cancer. (January 2022). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unsafe Sex More Likely After Drinking, Study Confirms. (December 2011). Live Science.
What Is Excessive Alcohol Use? (December 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alcohol-Related Liver Disease. (May 2022). National Health Service.
Alcohol Poisoning Deaths. (January 2015). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. (January 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.