Get Help Today. (800) 516-4357

Is Alcohol Bad for You?

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. 

Struggling with Alcohol Addiction? Get Help Now

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) reflect that.

NIAAA guidelines for minimal to moderate drinking are as follows:[2]

  • No more than one drink per day for women
  • No more than two drinks per day for men

Keeping alcohol levels low does not eliminate the risks associated with drinking, especially over the long term, but it may minimize them.


According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 13.2 million people ages 12 to 20 have had at least one drink in their lives. In this age group, 5.8 million reported drinking within the past month, and 3.2 million reported binge drinking.[25]

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 wrong time, unsafe sex, and driving under the influence.

Youth who are injured or killed due to alcohol abuse leave behind a community of grieving peers and adults. They can also represent lost opportunities for their communities, as they may never reach their full potential.

Parents can help by talking to their children about the risks involved with underage drinking. Communities can help by ensuring alcohol rules are closely followed and that young people have other meaningful activities that don’t involve drugs.

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

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies acetaldehyde (from drinking alcohol in Group 1, meaning that it is carcinogenic to humans.[27]

Cancers associated with alcohol consumption include the following:[17]

  • Esophageal
  • Liver
  • Colorectal
  • Breast

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.

The NIAAA says the following mental health issues often accompany alcohol use disorders:[26]

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Pre-existing mental health disorders may increase alcoholism risks, especially if people self-medicate by drinking. However, the NIAAA points out that adolescent or long-term drinking can increase the risk of psychiatric disorders.[26]

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]

Is Alcohol Bad for You? Breaking Down Risks by Age & Sex

The challenges alcohol might cause can vary by your age and your sex. Understanding these risks could help you know how to stay safe.

Underage Drinkers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls underage drinking a “significant public health problem in the U.S.”[21] People who start drinking at an early age tend to keep drinking as adults. They can also experience serious issues, such as the following:

  • Poor school performance
  • Legal consequences, such as an arrest for driving under the illness
  • Unprotected sexual activity
  • Physical or sexual violence
  • Increased risk of homicide and suicide
  • Memory problems
  • Accidental injuries

Alcohol and Women

The CDC says women absorb more alcohol and need longer to metabolize it when compared to men.[22] That means women tend to have higher blood alcohol levels than men, and alcohol’s effects tend to occur more quickly and last longer. Changes like this make women more susceptible to alcohol problems than men.

Common diseases in women linked to alcohol abuse include the following:[22]

  • Liver disease
  • Cognitive decline
  • Heart disease
  • Breast and other cancers
  • Sexual violence

Alcohol & Men

The CDC says men are more likely than women to drink excessively.[23] This type of behavior is dangerous, as the risks of alcohol increase with the amount consumed.

Risks men might face due to alcohol use include the following:

  • Hospitalization caused by alcohol
  • Early death
  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Increased aggression and violence
  • Suicide
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon
  • Reduced testicular function

Alcohol & Seniors

Some people who start drinking in youth keep drinking all the way through their senior years. Others start drinking later in life. No matter when you started drinking, continued intake can be dangerous for older people.

The National Institute on Aging points out that alcohol can interact with many medications seniors often take.[24] Alcohol use in seniors can also lead to the following issues:

  • Cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Immune system disorders
  • Brain damage
  • Worsening underlying conditions, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, stroke, memory loss, mood disorders
  • Confusion, which could be mistaken for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease

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 April 26, 2024
  1. Dietary guidelines for alcohol. Alcohol and Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 19, 2022. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  2. The basics: Defining how much alcohol is too much. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  3. Reducing underage drinking: A collective responsibility. Bonnie RJ, O’Connell ME. National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking. Published 2004. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  4. Facts about aging and alcohol. National Institute on Aging. Published July 19, 2022. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  5. What is a standard drink? National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  6. Drinking levels defined. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2017. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  7. Alcohol use and your health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published December 29, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  8. Binge drinking’s effects on the body. Molina PE, Nelson S. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2018;39(1):99-109.
  9. What is alcohol? The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership, Duke University. Published 2019. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  10. Moderate alcohol consumption and the immune system: A review. Romeo J, Wärnberg J, Nova E, Díaz LE, Gómez-Martinez S, Marcos A. British Journal of Nutrition. 2007;98(S1):S111-S115.
  11. Alcohol’s effects on the body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2021. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  12. Risk of myocardial infarction immediately after alcohol consumption. Mostofsky E, van der Bom JG, Mukamal KJ, et al. Epidemiology. 2015;26(2):143-150.
  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.
  14. Alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer. Bagnardi V, Blangiardo M, La Vecchia C, Corrao G. Alcohol Research & Health. 2001;25(4):263-270.
  15. Alcoholic liver disease. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Published 2018. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  16. Alcohol’s effects on the cardiovascular system. Piano MR. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2017;38(2):219-241.
  17. Health and cancer risks associated with low levels of alcohol consumption. Anderson BO, Berdzuli N, Ilbawi A, et al. The Lancet Public Health. 2023;8(1):e6-e7.
  18. Alcohol use disorder and depressive disorders. McHugh RK, Weiss RD. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2019;40(1).
  19. Alcohol and pregnancy. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Published 2017. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  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).
  21. Underage drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 16, 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.
  22. Excessive alcohol use is a risk to women’s health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published February 29, 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.
  23. Excessive alcohol use is a risk to men’s health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published February 29, 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.
  24. Facts about aging and alcohol. National Institute on Aging. Published July 19, 2022. Accessed April 22, 2024.
  25. Underage drinking in the United States (ages 12 to 20). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.
  26. Mental health issues: Alcohol use disorder and common co-occurring conditions. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published January 12, 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.
  27. Known and probable human carcinogens. American Cancer Society. Published March 25, 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.
Take The Next Step Now
Call Us Now Check Insurance