Health Risks of Alcohol
Every so often there will be a report in the news about how drinking alcohol in moderation is good for you. If you are someone who is worried about your drinking this will be music to your ears. However, even as you feel a little encouraged, realistically you must also know that drinking to excess has many health risks and no benefits. This article looks only at 10 physical health risks. Alcohol also has a serious effect on our mental health and it is often this that kills first in that a significant number of people take their own lives when they can no longer live with drinking – nor without it.
The most common physical risks are as follows:
- Liver disease
- Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems
- Immune system dysfunction
- Brain damage
- Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies
- Heart disease
- Accidents and injuries
Although everyone’s body reacts differently to alcohol and some are less affected physically than others, it is the case that for everyone, excessive alcohol is harmful to physical health. If we drink more than our body can cope with (metabolize or process) then the excess will build up in our bloodstream. There are at least 60 health conditions which can be caused or affected by excessive alcohol.
Alcohol is mostly processed in the liver, which is why the liver is particularly at risk of damage. It is made into acetaldehyde which is both toxic and carcinogenic (cancer causing). If you want to cut down on your drinking (or stop) it helps if you recognise it as a toxin (poison) – that is why we use the term intoxicated (poisoned) if someone is under the influence. What other poisons would you willing put into your body?
If you drink regularly and or heavily, it will significantly increase the chances of you developing liver disease including fatty liver, as the alcohol affects the liver’s ability to process fats. It can also cause inflammation (hepatitis) which can lead to scarring of the liver. This scarring can harden the liver – called cirrhosis. If the liver cannot function properly due to damage it can lead to organ failure and death. We are often unaware of liver damage until it is too late.
The majority of cases of pancreatitis are due to excessive consumption of alcohol. Pancreatitis is a painful inflammation of the pancreas which is sufficiently serious for sufferers to have to be hospitalised.
Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to cancer of the mouth, oesophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum, and breast. Both acetaldehyde and the alcohol itself contribute to the heightened risk.
Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems
Alcohol affects the digestive system. It can contribute to stomach ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn and lead to inflammation of the stomach lining, known as gastritis. It can lead to internal bleeding which can be fatal.
Immune system dysfunction
Alcohol causes changes in red blood cells, white blood cells (reducing them), and platelets. It weakens the immune system contributing to a risk of pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), HIV infection, and other conditions.
Most people are aware that alcohol can cause blurred vision, memory lapses, slurred speech, difficulty walking and slowed reaction time. It affects our cognitive function, moods and emotions. It affects our judgement, leading us to take risks we might not otherwise take. It also affects our fine motor co ordination skills and balance leading to us injuring ourselves in falls etc. We can also have ‘black outs’ which, contrary to many people’s beliefs, are not when we are unconscious. Rather a blackout is when we are functioning but later we do not recall details about significant chunks of time while under the influence.
Long-term heavy drinking can speed up the brain’s normal aging process, resulting in early and permanent dementia (also known as wet brain). The brain is not fully developed until around the age of 24 so young people drinking heavily can limit the ability of their brain to develop fully.
Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies
Many people who drink heavily are malnourished. This is in part due to their poor appetite and diet but also because alcohol affects the ability of the body to break down nutrients as it should.
Also, because alcohol affects the production of red blood cells and because it can cause bleeding from gastric ulcers, it can contribute to or cause iron deficiency (anemia).
Drinking can affect the health of our bones which, while not immediately apparent, can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life. This can lead to bone fractures especially in the hips and back.
Heart disease and cardiovascular health risks
Heavy drinking can lead to complications with circulation and blood pressure. It can lead to heart problems including angina and heart failure
Accidents and injuries
Drinking alcohol in any amount can lead to car accidents, domestic violence, falls, drowning, injuries at work, suicide, and even murder.
Worried about the Health Risks?
So, drinking alcohol to excess can cause many many health problems. Is it worth the health risks?