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Is Alcohol Bad for You? A Comprehensive Understanding of the Effects on Health

In this article, you’ll learn how much alcohol is bad for you, what happens to your body and your brain when you drink, and the health issues that you are at risk for when you drink alcohol. 

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Alcohol is a toxin, and it’s bad for your physical and mental health, both in the short term and long term. Whether you drink moderately, heavily, or binge drink, continued exposure to alcohol can add up to chronic disease that can be fatal.

How Much Alcohol Is Bad for You?

There is no set formula for determining how much alcohol is bad for you, as the substance impacts different people differently. In general, any exposure to alcohol can be damaging to the body and its function, and poor choices made while under the influence can be deadly.

However, there are some guidelines that can be followed to help you get a clearer idea of how much alcohol may be too much.

Special Circumstances

In certain cases, any amount of alcohol is considered bad for you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, some of these cases include the following:[1]

  • Those who are pregnant, believe they may be pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding
  • People under the age of 21
  • Those who have medical conditions that will be worsened by drinking alcohol 
  • Those who take medications that may be altered by the use of alcohol
  • Anyone who has previously struggled with any substance use or abuse issues or disorders

Gender Differences 

According to the research, men and women process alcohol differently, and the guidelines offered by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) state that minimal to moderate drinking means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.[2] Keeping alcohol levels low does not eliminate the risks associated with drinking, especially over the long term, but it may minimize them.

Underage 

In the United States, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink alcohol in any amount, but underage drinking comes with a number of other potential problems beyond legal difficulties. One study found that drinking during the teen years was associated with the development of depression, low self-esteem, lifelong addiction, and anxiety.[3] 

Additionally, teens who drink may be more likely to suffer negative consequences associated with being in the wrong place at the long time, unsafe sex, and driving under the influence.

Older Adults

As people age, their metabolism slows down, and if they continue to drink at the same rate they did in their early and middle adulthood, they may be inviting more accidents, increased rate of disease, and potential negative interactions with medications.[4]

Risks of Different Levels of Alcohol Consumption

Different amounts of drinking, both during a drinking session and in terms of number of drinking sessions per week, come with risks. It’s important to note that a standard drink is defined as follows:[5]

  • Beer:12 ounces
  • Wine: 5 ounces 
  • Liquor or spirits (80 proof): 1.5 ounces

Based on these standards, the following outlines the potential risks associated with different levels of drinking:[6-8]

DefinitionPotential Risks
AbstinenceNo alcohol at allNone
Low to Moderate1 drink or less per day for women and 2 drinks or less per day for menMinimal risk of alcohol-related harm when consumed in moderation unless there are underlying chronic conditions
Moderate to Heavy2-3 drinks for women and 3-4 drinks for men per dayIncreased risk of long-term health problems, including liver disease, some cancers, and/or mental health disorders as well as accident or injury
Binge Drinking4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men within about 2 hoursHigher risk of accidents, injuries, alcohol poisoning, violence, risky sexual behavior, and long-term health issues like liver damage, heart disease, and addiction
Heavy DrinkingRegularly consuming large amounts of alcohol; may or may not exceed binge drinking levelsHigh risk of alcohol dependence, liver disease, cardiovascular problems, mental health disorders, and social, occupational, and legal problems as well as increased risk of early death

Understanding Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol is actually a chemical compound called ethyl alcohol or ethanal. It is a psychoactive substance produced by fermenting sugar with yeast. Chemically, alcohol is an organic compound made of a combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms with a molecular formula of C2H5OH.[9] 

Alcohol is a beverage that has been around in various forms and strengths for millennia, changing from culture to culture. It is used for its ability to create a feeling of relaxation, euphoria, and sedation in celebratory, medicinal, and social situations. 

It is possible to drink alcohol with little to no negative effects as long as drinking is only occasional, never in large amounts, and never when there are underlying conditions present, such as pregnancy or chronic illness. 

The more drinks ingested in a given period of time and the more frequently one drinks throughout the week, the more likely it is that there will be negative consequences, such as damage to the body’s systems, weight gain that contributes to chronic illness, and life-altering or life-ending accidents while under the influence.

The Health Consequences of Alcohol

Though the most dangerous drinking is heavy drinking or binge drinking, when it comes to negative health effects, moderate drinking can also pose health risks. Steady exposure to a moderate amount of alcohol can still be a burden on the liver, damage the heart, and depress the immune system, opening up the person to an increased likelihood of illness of any kind.[10]

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Use

Alcohol can begin to do damage in the body with the first couple of drinks. Some of the short-term effects of alcohol can include the following:[11-13]

  • Changes in the brain: The communication pathways in the brain are affected by alcohol, which can immediately change how you think, feel, move, and respond to stimuli. 
  • Heart issues: A few drinks can trigger an arrhythmia or high blood pressure. There is an increased risk of experiencing a myocardial infarction immediately after drinking alcohol.
  • Pancreatic toxins: Alcohol can trigger the production of toxic substances in the pancreas, which can lead to inflammation, swelling, and pain in the pancreas. 
  • Lowered immune system: A drinking session can lower the immune system and make the drinker more susceptible to viruses and bacteria for up to 24 hours.
  • Accident or injury: When under the influence, the risk of making mistakes that result in injury is increased, especially when operating a motor vehicle.[

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use 

Whether drinking minimally or in large amounts, long-term exposure to alcohol can take a toll on the function of all body systems and increase the chances of developing chronic and terminal illnesses.

Some of the health effects that can occur with long-term drinking include the following:[14-16] 

  • Cancer: Cancer occurs when there are mutations in the cells and tumors form, and as a toxin, alcohol can contribute to those mutations. There is an increased risk of skin cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and more with long-term drinking.
  • Alcoholic liver disease: Alcohol is processed in the liver. Repeated exposure to high doses of alcohol can result in a number of liver problems, including alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis, which is the first stage of alcoholic liver disease.
  • Heart disease: Alcohol raises triglyceride levels in the blood, increases the rate of arrhythmia, raises blood pressure, and can contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis. All of these are the precursors to or symptoms of heart disease.

Alcohol & Cancer Risk

Alcohol intake increases the risk of developing all forms of cancers, from skin cancer to esophageal cancer to prostate cancer and more. Even low levels of alcohol intake contribute to cancer risk because alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, which are defined as cancer-causing agents.[17] 

The formula for alcohol leading to cancer appears to be amount plus time. That is, low levels of drinking may take longer to build up in the system and contribute to cancer if there are no other carcinogenic exposures to speed up the process. Heavier drinking may more quickly trigger the development of cancer or precancerous issues. 

It’s important to note that even though light or moderate alcohol consumption is said to be less damaging initially, it can also lead to the development of cancer over time.[14]

Alcohol & Mental Health

Though many reach for a drink in an effort to manage their mood by increasing their sense of celebration or happiness, or to decrease stress, the truth is that alcohol has a negative impact on mental health. 

In the short term, alcohol may increase anxiety and depression even if the goal was to lift mood by having a drink. Even people who experience a brief improvement in how they feel will find that this feeling dissipates as the alcohol wears off, and it is often replaced by feeling worse than when they started. 

For those living with a mood disorder and seeking to medicate the issue with alcohol, symptoms may be amplified. The backlash after the alcohol processes out of the system often results in an increase in depression or anxiety, exacerbating their underlying condition. This then triggers the urge to drink more to manage the problem.[18]

Alcohol’s Health Effects FAQs

These are some of the questions we hear most about alcohol’s effects on health:

Is it bad to drink alcohol when sick?

Yes. Alcohol suppresses the immune system, which means that if you are already sick, it can stop your body from healing itself and potentially open the door to the development of other ailments if exposed.[11]

Why is alcohol bad for your heart?

Alcohol increases blood pressure and arrhythmia, which puts wear and tear on the heart. It also increases the level of triglycerides in this system and contributes to the buildup of plaque that blocks arteries and causes heart attacks.[16]

Why is alcohol bad for your liver?

Processing large amounts of a toxin like alcohol damages the liver, causing issues like fatty liver disease, fibrosis, and a breakdown in liver function. This can add up to cirrhosis, which is one of the stages of liver disease.[15]

How bad is alcohol for muscle growth?

If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, it can inhibit the baby’s muscle growth and all development, both in utero and after birth.[19] 

While research does not show that moderate intake of alcohol leads to muscle weakness and atrophy in adults, it does show that heavy drinking generally leads to a decrease in muscle mass.[20]  

Can I Drink at All?

For some populations, no amount of alcohol is safe, but for the general public who do not have underlying conditions, are not pregnant or breastfeeding, and not taking medications, a small amount of alcohol is not overtly harmful. 

However, over time, moderate levels of drinking—and certainly heavy or binge drinking—can take a toll on physical and mental health, contributing to the development of chronic diseases, co-occurring mental health disorders, and addiction. 

If you struggle to control your drinking, it’s a sign of a potential alcohol use disorder. While there is no cure, the condition can be effectively managed with comprehensive, evidence-based treatment. Reach out for help today, so you can see what a healthier, happier life is like. 

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated February 21, 2024
Resources
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  13. Relative risk of injury due to alcohol consumption in car and motorcycle drivers. Yadollahi M, Pazhuheian F. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. 2020;26(12):1525-1531.
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  20. Moderate alcohol consumption does not impair overload induced muscle hypertrophy and protein synthesis. Steiner JL, Gordon BS, Lang CH. Physiological Reports. 2015;3(3).
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