Even though alcohol is a regular part of millions of people’s lives, it can cause a great deal of harm. Over 2 million people die every year due to the effects of alcohol consumption, and over 100 million people’s health is negatively impacted (1). Given the vast range of organs and systems that alcohol can affect, it is no wonder that misusing alcohol is dangerous to the body – no matter your age.
How much alcohol is dangerous?
It can be helpful to get a working knowledge of the different types or levels of alcohol consumption to answer this question. It is important to note that there are variations in each type between men and women since women’s bodies process alcohol differently. Women absorb more alcohol, and their systems take longer to process it (2, 3). With that in mind, here are the different types of drinking habits (2):
- Light drinking: less than 1 drink per day for women, less than 2 drinks per day for men
- Moderate drinking: 1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks per day for men
- Heavy drinking: 4+ drinks per day or 8+ drinks per week for women, 5+ drinks per day or 15+ drinks per week for men
- Binge drinking: 4+ drinks for women or 5+ drinks for men within 2 hours
So, when it comes to determining how much alcohol can be dangerous, there is explicit agreement across the board that binge drinking and heavy drinking can harm your body, no matter how old or young you are. There are immediate adverse physical effects, and if these patterns of drinking repeatedly occur for months or years, there is an increased risk of many different disorders and diseases. Even light drinkers (1 drink per day or less) or binge drink infrequently have an increased risk of adverse health effects, including cancer (2).
Brain and Nervous System
The brain and nervous system is perhaps the best place to start talking about the dangers of alcohol on the body because this system is so critical. Initially, alcohol reduces the brain’s ability to communicate with the body. Over time and continued heavy use, alcohol can damage the central nervous system, leading to numbness and tingling in extremities like the hands and feet (3).
Even more startling is that drinking too much alcohol can cause permanent brain damage to the frontal lobe (3, 4). The frontal lobe is in charge of voluntary movement, expressing language, and higher-level executive functions (such as problem-solving, planning, self-control, self-awareness, motivation, social behavior, rationality, and mood) (3, 4). Alcohol can also affect memory and lead to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a memory disorder that stems from brain damage (3). Sadly, alcohol-induced brain damage can affect almost all aspects of your life, including personality, behavior, and physical abilities.
Anything that affects the physical brain has a high chance of affecting mental health. Alcohol and mental health problems are linked, especially conditions like depression and anxiety (1, 2). In fact, two studies have found that heavy alcohol consumption definitively leads to depressive disorders (1). There are many reasons that this link exists, given how alcohol can damage the body. Drinking too much also has a very significant bidirectional relationship with social tension such as family or relationship problems, poor school or work performance, lost productivity, and unemployment, all of which also harm mental health (2).
Digestion, Blood Sugar, and the Pancreas
Consuming too much alcohol can also negatively affect the digestive system and the pancreas. It begins by damaging tissue in the digestive tract (mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, intestines), leading to malnutrition, internal bleeding, and ulcers (3). Some people may even find themselves vomiting blood after drinking. While moderate irritation (especially if you tend to smoke while drinking) may be the reason you are throwing up blood, alcohol-related ulcers, gastritis (inflammation of stomach lining), or more serious damage of the digestive tract or liver could be other causes (5).
This damage also affects the pancreas, creating an irregular activation of digestive enzymes that can lead to poor digestion and pancreatitis, directly affecting insulin and blood sugar levels (3, 6). Poor insulin regulation is associated with irregular blood sugar, diabetes, hypoglycemia, and hyperglycemia, all of which can cause impaired brain activity (3, 7). Insulin levels that aren’t regulated well can also affect something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports brain cell survival, regeneration, and overall brain resilience (8). So, the damage that alcohol overconsumption causes to the digestive system can also further damage the brain.
Heart, Lungs, and Circulatory System
Alcohol can permanently damage the heart and lungs as well. There is a higher risk of all types of heart-related issues for people who drink heavily, especially women (3). High blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, poor efficiency, anemia, and heart disease, attack, and failure are all risk factors (3, 6). Drinking too much can also lead to a stretched or drooping heart muscle or even stroke (6).
Liver, Inflammation, and the Immune System
Liver damage is one of the most well-known effects of alcohol consumption. When the liver gets overwhelmed trying to process a large amount of alcohol (or a moderate amount, regularly consumed), it can lead to liver inflammation or scarring (3, 6). This scarring is called cirrhosis, which results in permanent damage and reduced liver function. The liver is vital to full-body functioning because it removes toxins and waste. If the liver isn’t functioning well, these toxins build up in our bodies and create widespread inflammation, which can cause any number of diseases (8).
Alcohol consumption can also affect the immune system. While reduced liver function does significantly impair the immune system, even people who don’t have liver damage can have lowered immunity (3, 6, 9). Binge drinking reduces the body’s ability to fight off infection, even up to 24 hours after sobering up (6). Long-term heavy drinking leads to a weakened immune system, and people who consume a lot of alcohol are much more likely to contract pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other potentially dangerous diseases (3, 6).
Alcohol consumption is a known carcinogen, meaning that it can cause cancer. While the most significant link exists between heavy drinking and cancer, even light drinkers have an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, especially along the digestive tract (2). Cancer of the mouth, voice box, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and rectum are the most common, though reproductive cancers may also occur (1, 2). Those who use tobacco along with alcohol are at the highest risk of developing these cancers (1, 2).
Managing a Relationship with Alcohol
While many people can control their alcohol consumption and not see these detrimental health effects at any point in their lives, many others cannot. If you have noticed that your drinking habits align with heavy or binge drinking, or if any of these adverse effects on the body and mind seem familiar to you, please contact us. Our team at Bayshore would be honored to help guide and support you in your journey toward control, health, and sobriety.