People often believe that drinking once in a while, or only on occasions, is safe and does not carry any harmful effects to their bodies. However, the only way to be free from any alcohol-related impact on your health is not to drink. Consuming even small quantities of alcohol harms your health in various ways.
How Does Drinking Impact Your Health?
There are no healthy levels of alcohol consumption. Even an occasional drink starts to affect your body in small but impactful ways. Additionally, these effects are not restricted to just your liver. Upon entering the bloodstream, alcohol travels to various organs in your body, affecting each differently.
Short-Term Effects of Drinking Alcohol
Below is a list of short-term effects of drinking on your body, categorized by the organ impacted.
|Organ or System of the Body|
Impact Drinking has on the Organ or System
|Brain and Nervous System|
|Blood and Circulation|
|Bones and Muscles|
|Sex Organs and Pregnancy|
Long-Term Effects of Drinking Alcohol
Below is a list of long-term effects of drinking on your body, categorized by the organ impacted.
Impact Drinking has on the Organ
|Heart and Circulation|
|Sex Organs and Pregnancy|
|Brain and Mental Health|
Alcohol and Cancer
Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing six cancers - mouth and throat, voice box, esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast cancer. The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of HHS identifies alcoholic beverages as a human carcinogen.
Alcohol consumption carries a significant cancer burden on American society and alcohol-related cancer cases in men. Almost 340,000 of these cases were cancers of the esophagus and liver.
The more an individual consumes alcohol, the higher their risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. Consuming alcohol does not mean that you will definitely get cancer, but the less you drink alcohol, the safer you are from developing cancerous cells in your body.
There are a few ways in which alcohol can lead to cancer development in your body:
- Alcohol can damage your cells and stop cells from repairing the damage
- Alcohol affects chemical signals which may make your cells more likely to multiply (increasing the chances of growing cancerous cells)
- Alcohol makes it easier for the cells in your mouth and throat to absorb other carcinogens
- Alcohol can raise estrogen levels in women, which can fuel cancer growth
Drinking in Moderation
To reduce the risk of alcohol-based health troubles, knowing the recommended consumption levels is essential. While there is always some variability in how alcohol affects individuals, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has specific guidelines.
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What is a Standard Drink
According to the CDC, a standard drink in the United States contains exactly 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This is equivalent to 14.0 grams or 1.2 tablespoons of alcohol. A standard serving of alcohol may look different depending on the type of alcohol you are drinking:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (including gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)
The CDC defines moderate drinking as
- One or fewer drinks each day for women
- Two or fewer drinks each day for men
It is important to note that no amount of alcohol is ‘safe’ to consume. Even moderate consumption of alcohol impacts your body in various ways. Your brain, liver, heart, and nervous system are affected every time you drink.
Excessive drinking includes several drinking patterns, such as binge drinking, heavy drinking, underage drinking, and women who drink during pregnancy. It is important to note that people who participate in excessive drinking typically do not have an alcohol abuse disorder or are alcohol dependent. Excessive alcohol use can profoundly impact your health. Between 2011-2015, excessive alcohol consumption was responsible for around 95,000 deaths.
According to the NIAAA, binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that increases your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent or higher. In 2019, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health found that almost 24 percent of Americans, which amounts to approximately 66 million people, reported binge drinking in the past month. While the rates of binge drinking are high across the board, they have most significantly increased among older adults and women.
The CDC notes that binge drinking is the most common and deadly form of excessive drinking. Around one in six adults participate in binge drinking, with 25 percent doing so weekly. It tends to be more common around younger adults, men, and those with incomes above $75,000 a year. Binge drinking is considered as:
- Consuming five or more drinks on occasion for men
- Four or more drinks on occasion for women
Although binge drinking accounts for most extreme drinking cases, it is not the only pattern of excessive drinking. Heavy drinking is defined as
- 15 or more drinks per week for a man
- Eight or more drinks per week for a woman
Effects of Drinking Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are a few common questions about the impact of drinking.
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Is beer or wine safer to drink than liquor?
No. According to the CDC, one 12 ounce serving of beer has the same amount of alcohol as one 5 ounce serving of wine and a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor. So, it does not matter what kind of alcohol you consume; the amount of pure alcohol intake decides how harmful it may be to your body.
How do I know if I have a drinking problem?
You may be developing a drinking problem if your drinking practices affect your relationships in school/work or personal life, impair your ability to think and feel, or alter your social interactions. However, these are just a few indicators to help you identify an unhealthy drinking pattern. Find more self-assessment questions here.
Where can I find help for my drinking problems?
If you are worried about yourself or a loved one who might be struggling with an unhealthy drinking pattern, try to reach out to the person’s primary care physician to develop a potential treatment plan. There are various types of treatments available depending on the individual’s needs. There are behavioral treatments, medications, and mutual support groups that may be referred to by your physician as needed.
Is it healthy to drink wine?
Wine is rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that reduces stress and inflammation in the body. They may also help lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease. However, these are health benefits associated with the intake of polyphenols which are only one component of a wine. Alcohol consumption (including wine) has various harmful effects on your body, and the benefits of consuming wine are still up for debate.
If you choose to consume alcohol, keep in mind the recommended consumption levels. Drinking can impact your health in many short-term and long-term ways. It has even been shown to increase one’s risk of getting cancer. While there are no healthy levels of alcohol consumption, drinking in moderation is always better than drinking unregulated.
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Girisha is a second-year graduate student at Columbia University, pursuing a Master's in Public Health. She is excited to combine her passion for Public Health and writing with the hopes of delivering quality health information, one article at a time!