What are the adverse effects of heavy alcohol consumption?

Adverse Health Effects of Heavy Alcohol Use
Last time we talked about the guidelines regarding alcohol consumption.  This week we’ll focus on the adverse health consequences of excessive alcohol use.  Remember that moderate alcohol consumption is considered one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

Light to moderate alcohol consumption is considered safe for most people, although there are some people who should not drink alcohol at all.  We talked about this briefly last week, and we’ll touch on it again today.

Drinking too much alcohol can cause both physical and mental harm to your body in a number of ways.   Let’s go through it by body system.

Liver:  Heavy drinking can certainly take a toll on the liver.  The metabolism of alcohol creates a toxic compound call acetaldehyde.  This toxin contributes to inflammation in the liver and other organ systems.  Your liver functions to remove toxins from the body, so it has to work overtime when you drink alcohol.   If you drink heavily, either too many drinks in one sitting, or too many drinks over a long period of time, your liver can’t keep up.  This excess alcohol can damage your liver in different ways.

  • Fatty liver – Fat builds up in the liver, leading to poor function.
  • Cirrhosis – Liver cells are killed, leading to scarring and fibrosis.  This damage, referred to as cirrhosis, significantly damages the ability of the liver to function properly.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis – Often caused by binge drinking or heavy drinking over short periods of time, this is an acute inflammation of the liver that can lead to loss of liver function and death.


Pancreas:  Alcohol can cause inflammation in the pancreas, called pancreatitis, which can be acute or chronic.  It can be a very serious condition that causes significant pain and digestive problems.

Heart and Cardiovascular System:  Damage to the heart can be caused by excessive alcohol consumption on a single occasion or heavy drinking over a long time.  Heart problems that can be caused by alcohol include:

  • Cardiomyopathy – The heart muscle becomes stretched thin and the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump adequately.
  • Arrhythmias – Several abnormal heart rhythms can be associated with alcohol use, some fatal.
  • High blood pressure – Increases your risk for cardiovascular death from heart attack and stroke.
  • Brain and Neurologic system:
  • Stroke – Stroke risk is increased by heavy alcohol use, which can lead to significant disability or death.
  • Memory – Alcohol interferes with the pathways in the brain.  Intoxication, especially heavy intoxication prevents your brain from moving short term memories into long term storage, so you may remember what happened when you were drunk for a few days, but you will not be able to remember weeks or years later, even really important things that happened.
  • Encephalopathy – Usually caused by chronic heavy drinking.  This is an inflammation within the brain, which causes confusion, loss of motor coordination, short-term memory loss, involuntary eye movements, and other symptoms.
  • Neuropathy – Also caused by chronic heavy drinking, neuropathy causes damage to sensory nerves, causing tingling, numbness, and pain in the feet and hands.  It can also cause poor function of motor nerves, leading to foot drop, abnormal gait, and frequent falls.


Immune System:  Drinking too much can weaken your immune system.  This is true for chronic excessive drinking, which increases your risk for several infections.  Drinking a lot on a single occasion weakens your immune function for up to 24 hours after getting drunk.  This is certainly not something you want to happen right now!

Cancer:  There has been extensive research on the effects of alcohol on cancer risk.  There is strong scientific evidence of an association between alcohol consumption and several types of cancer.  Alcohol is actually listed as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  The more alcohol a person drinks over time, the higher the risk of developing an alcohol-related cancer.

Here are the types of cancers that have a clear association with alcohol:

  • Head and neck cancer – People who drink 3.5 drinks per day or more have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing head and neck cancers than non-drinkers.  This includes cancers of the tongue, tonsils, larynx and others.  This risk is substantially higher among heavy drinkers who also use tobacco products.
  • Liver cancer – Alcohol consumption is an independent risk factor for liver cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer – Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for certain types of cancer in the esophagus.
  • Breast cancer – There have been more than 100 studies that looked at the association between the risk of breast cancer and the consumption of alcohol.  These studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increasing alcohol intake.
  • Colorectal cancer – There is a modestly increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum associated with alcohol consumption.


For most people, moderate alcohol consumption is not associated with significant health risks.  However, this may not be true for everyone.  Here are just a couple of examples.  If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, you might want to avoid alcohol use, or reserve alcohol for rare special occasions.  If you have high blood pressure that is hard to control, eliminating alcohol consumption might allow you to take fewer medications.

If you have any more questions just Ask Hanna, our health advisors are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Image: ©Shutterstock / fizkes

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