After a tough day at the office, sitting down with a drink is a sure way to help you unwind. Having a drink in the company of friends or a loved one can also help you to relax and get into the “feel-good” mood.    In this scenario you can relax with peace of mind, knowing that a study amongst 1.93 million subjects in the United Kingdom about alcohol intake and various forms of heart disease, has found that moderate users of alcohol have a lower risk for some of these conditions than non-drinkers.  Heavy drinking on the other hand, shows a very high risk for most of the 12 cardiovascular conditions covered in the study.

Not so fast to celebrate these findings with a drink or two, says the most comprehensive global study ever done on the effects of alcohol on your health. Looking at the overall health picture and not only the effects of alcohol on cardiovascular health, the healthiest option is zero alcohol intake.  Before going into the detailed findings of these studies, it is perhaps prudent to understand the effects of alcohol on the body, especially in the case of binge drinking or heavy drinking – more than 8 drinks per week for woman and more than 15 drinks per week for men.

Alcohol is absorbed from the stomach and the small intestines and then most of the alcohol gets metabolized in the liver and converted into acetaldehyde – a toxic breakdown product of large amounts of alcohol, which is capable of damaging almost any part of the body. Fortunately the body has some detoxifying enzymes that can assist to break down the acetaldehyde molecules, when present in moderation.  The rising levels of acetaldehyde in the blood stream greatly contribute to all the side effects of alcohol intake.


Effects of heavy drinking on the body:

  • Depression: Alcohol can disrupt the balance of mood-stabilising neurotransmitters in the brain, causing mood-dips and over time can result in depression.
  • Memory loss and dementia: Disruptions of the mood-stabilising neurotransmitters can result in short term memory loss and over the long term result in cognitive conditions such as dementia. A French study of 57 000 cases of early onset dementia has found that nearly 60% of the cases could be linked to chronic heavy drinking. Brains shrink as people age, but heavy drinking can speed up the shrinking process in certain areas of the brain, also adding to cognitive conditions such as memory loss and dementia.
  • Liver problems: High intakes of alcohol in a short space of time overloads the metabolism of the liver and causes fat to build up in the liver. The stored fat in the liver cells accumulates over time and can result in fatty liver disease, which is a high risk condition for inflammatory conditions such as alcoholic hepatitis and can also lead to cirrhosis – a condition where the liver starts to deteriorate and becomes unable to function properly.
  • Obesity: As excess alcohol is also a source of excess calories, it becomes a risk factor for obesity.
  • Cardiovascular effects: Binge drinkers have a 40% higher risk of a stroke. A high intake of alcohol causes the release of stress hormones that can spike your blood pressure due to the tightening and constriction of blood vessels, which over time can make them stiffen and become less elastic – resulting in elevated blood pressure levels. For the same reason heart muscles can become weak and struggle or eventually fail to pump fresh blood throughout the body, a condition called cardiomyopathy. Heavy drinking can also result in serious heart rhythm abnormalities such as atrial fibrillation (the upper chambers of the heart twitching irregularly instead of pumping regularly) and ventricular fibrillation (chaotic twitching in the pumping chambers). These conditions can be fatal if not treated in time.
  • Pancreatitis: Excessive use of alcohol can interfere with the normal functioning of the pancreas and cause the secretion of digestive enzymes internally into the pancreas instead of excreting them to the small intestine. This can lead to a painful inflammatory condition called pancreatitis and can also lead to an increased risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Cancer: The toxic substance acetaldehyde can cause damage to cells, DNA and proteins in the body. Healthy cells can start growing out of control and become cancerous. Heavy drinking has been linked to a higher risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, colorectal region, liver and even breast cancer. These risks of cancer are even higher for those who are smokers as well.
  • Immune system: By interfering with the making of white blood cells that fights infection in the body, long term excessive intake of alcohol and repeated binging can suppress your immune system, making you vulnerable to infectious diseases, even pneumonia and tuberculosis. A compromised immune system would speed up the development of HIV in those who have contracted the disease.
  • Blood: Keeping in mind that blood consists of white and red blood cells, as well as platelets, research has shown that heavy drinking not only affects the production of white blood cells, but can also result in abnormally low levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.       This condition is called anemia and the symptoms can include shortness of breath, fatigue and lightheadedness. Heavy drinking can cause platelets to clump together into blood clots, which can result in a heart attack or a stroke.
  • Gout: Alcohol and dietary factors can play a role in aggravating existing cases of gout, which is a painful condition due to uric acid crystals forming in the joints.
  • Nerve damage: As heavy drinking can be toxic to nerve cells, along with other cells in the body, it can result in a form of nerve damage characterized by pins-and-needles feelings, numbness in the extremities of the body, muscle weakness, and even erectile dysfunction. This form of nerve damage is called alcoholic neuropathy.
  • Short term health risks: Excessive use of alcohol can result in immediate health risks such as alcohol poisoning;  miscarriage and stillbirth; a tendency to violent behavior; risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex, and even injuries from vehicle accidents, falls and other mishaps.


Major research on the health effects of alcohol:

Many studies have been done over time about the effects of alcohol on health, but two of these studies were very comprehensive and worth taking note of.

The findings of a study that compared the clinically recorded alcohol consumption with the initial presentation of 12 cardiovascular diseases of nearly 2 million subjects in the UK, was published in March 2017. As can be expected, heavy drinking increased the risk for most of the12 cardiovascular diseases.  The surprising finding was that moderate drinking (one drink per day for woman and two drinks per day for men or less frequent) indicated a slightly lower risk for some, but not all of the 12 conditions than for non-drinkers.  Perceived shortcomings of the study was that it relied on information supplied by the patients themselves about alcohol consumption, as recorded on the electronic medical records of patients.

A global study done from 1990 to 2016 (The Global Burdon of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factor Study 2016) analyzed the relative risks associated with alcohol on 23 health outcomes. The findings indicated that globally the use of alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor for both deaths and disability-adjusted-life-years (DALY’s).  Alcohol also accounted for 10% of global deaths of people in the 15-49 years old bracket in 2016.  The findings indicated that the lower risk of some cardiovascular diseases for moderate users of alcohol were offset by the increased risk for other health conditions.

The study concludes: “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.”



Alcohol & heart health: New study untangles the effects.  Published online 23 March 2017.  LiveScience.  (

Association between clinically recorded alcohol consumption and initial presentation of 12 cardiovascular diseases: population based cohort study using linked health records. Published 22 March 2017.  The BMJ.  (

10 Scary health effects of alcohol every drinker needs to know.  Published online 24 August 2018.  Yahoo Lifestyle.  (

Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990 – 2016: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Published 22 September 2018 in The Lancet, Volume 392, Issue 10152, p1015-1035.  (

Alcohol use and your health.  Information last reviewed 3 January 2018.  Fact sheet: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   (USA).   (

Alcohol’s effects on the body.  Published online.  National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  National Institutes of Health.  (USA).  (

12 Health risks of chronic heavy drinking.  Published online 15 September 2011.  WebMD.  (

The intake of alcohol.  Blog, March 2017.  Health Insight.  (






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