22 Surprising Ways Drinking Too Much Affects Your Body
These are the negative effects of drinking too much alcohol, according to doctors.
Although you might not feel it after taking a few sips of wine or finishing a pint of beer, alcohol affects everything from your brain to your heart to your immune system from the moment it hits your bloodstream. Drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time or even on a single occasion can take a huge toll on your overall health. For example, it can damage the heart and cause issues like irregular heart beat (AKA arrhythmia) and high blood pressure, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
"The reason alcohol is so dangerous is that it acts to suppress the body's nervous system, not just in an emotional way but in a physical way as well. Reflexes are slowed, breathing is suppressed, sensation is diminished, and inhibition is impaired," explains David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
That's why if you do drink alcohol, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends women stick to one alcoholic beverage daily and men up to two drinks. But a landmark 2018 study in The Lancet shows that no amount of alcohol is totally safe. Think your drinking habits are affecting your health? Here are all the ways alcohol affects your body.
It causes liver damage.
The liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol, so over consuming alcohol can lead to a variety of liver issues, including cirrhosis, fibrosis, fatty liver disease, and alcoholic hepatitis, the NIAAA says. Liver damage is also associated with blood thinning and clotting. When you drink too much alcohol, you produce more platelets in the blood, which are more likely to form clots. What's even more concerning is that alcohol abuse and liver cirrhosis can disrupt the bacteria in the gut, affecting the efficiency of the immune system, a 2017 study in Microbiome shows.
It can lead to blood clots and hemorrhaging.
Excessive alcohol consumption also puts you at increased risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which are blood clots that form in the deep veins in the body, particularly in the legs.
"Mixing alcohol with blood thinners, such as warfarin, can both increase and decrease the thickness of the blood, leading to dangerous bleeding or hemorrhaging or developing blood clots," says Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Laguna Woods, California.
It leads to bloating.
Because alcohol can create an imbalance of bacteria in the gut and disrupt liver functioning, bloating, heartburn, stomach ulcers, and indigestion are common among people who abuse alcohol. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining, which can lead to acute gastritis, the Mayo Clinic reports. Gastritis can also increase your risk for stomach cancer.
It can cause diarrhea.
Because alcohol contains acids that can irritate the stomach lining and gastrointestinal tract, it can cause diarrhea. In some people, mixed drinks can trigger IBS symptoms because they contain artificial sweeteners and sugars that may cause an upset stomach. Moreover, binge drinking alters the bacteria in the gut by destroying good bacteria and allowing bad bacteria to develop.
It causes sleep problems.
A glass of wine might sound like a good nightcap, and while alcohol might help you fall asleep initially, it can disrupt your sleep in the middle of the night. According to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol increases the amount of adenosine, a neurochemical responsible for sleep, but it also works to block REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, causing grogginess.
Alcohol is also a diuretic so you may wake up multiple times at night to use the bathroom.
It can lead to frequent headaches.
Alcohol is one of the most common triggers of migraines and headaches. The American Migraine Foundation reports that alcohol can trigger two different types of migraines: one that happens after a few hours, and a delayed hangover headache. Although it's not completely clear how alcohol can cause headaches, it's believed that the histamines and sulfites in alcoholic drinks can trigger them.
It can compromise your immune system.
If you're drinking too much alcohol, you may notice that you're susceptible to colds or can't seem to shake off other illnesses. According to the Cleveland Clinic, alcohol can suppress and weaken the immune system. A 2016 review in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry shows that heavy drinkers are at an increased risk for both bacterial and viral infections.
It makes your skin dry and ages it.
Drinking also isn't doing your skin any favors. Alcohol dehydrates the body, making your skin more prone to wrinkles. A 2019 study in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology suggests that heavy alcohol use is associated with increased upper facial lines, puffy under-eyes, and midface volume loss.
Plus, the sugar and acids in alcohol can disrupt the gut microbiome too, which can manifest as acne.
It causes forgetfulness and memory loss.
A 2017 review in Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research shows that chronic excessive alcohol consumption is associated with mild to severe cognitive deficits. In fact, starting at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05, which is about three alcoholic drinks, there is an onset of memory impairments, the American Addiction Centers says.
"Multiple studies have shown a correlation between prolonged alcohol use and cognitive complaints," says Clifford Segil, DO, neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center. "Years of drinking alcohol can also cause rare forms of memory loss associated with confusion called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Alcohol crosses the blood-brain barrier and is toxic to neurons causing nerve damage," he says.
It can cause anxiety and depression.
Because alcohol affects the emotional centers of the brain, it can have a significant impact on mood. Alcohol increases the amount of serotonin and endorphins in the body, which regulate feelings of happiness and well-being, but studies show that too much alcohol over a long period of time can actually decrease serotonin levels, leading to depression and anxiety. A 2018 study in Psychiatry Research suggests that alcohol abuse is comorbid with major depressive disorder.
People with major depressive disorder or persistent depressive disorder may also self-medicate with alcohol, which can make their feelings of hopelessness and fatigue worse. In severe cases, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can also trigger suicidal thoughts, a 2017 study in Psychiatry Research suggests.
It leads to extreme fatigue.
Because heavy alcohol use is associated with depression and anxiety, it can also cause fatigue, one of the common symptoms of these mental health issues. Excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to sarcopenia, also known as muscle mass loss, and alcoholic myopathy, which is dysfunction of the muscular and skeletal systems, a 2017 study in Alcohol Research shows. Weakness, pain, tenderness, and swelling are examples of alcoholic myopathy symptoms.
It puts you at an increased risk for certain cancers.
Research shows that heavy alcohol use is associated with cancer of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon. A 2017 study from Pharmacological Research shows that alcohol can not only trigger the onset of breast cancer, but can also promote the progression and aggressiveness of the disease.
So how much is too much? Jane Kakkis, MD, surgical oncologist and medical director of breast surgery at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center, says, "A small amount [of alcohol] during infrequent celebrations, likely won't increase your risk much, but recent research suggests that any amount of regular alcohol consumption increases your risk of breast cancer. Even one drink per day increases your risk."
It increases your risk of osteoporosis.
Alcohol affects every part of your body, including your joints. The NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center says that alcohol interferes with the balance of calcium in your bones and the production of vitamin D. Heavy alcohol use can also reduce the amount of testosterone and estrogen levels in the body, which increases the risk for osteoporosis.
It can result in nerve damage.
Over time, alcohol overconsumption can cause alcoholic polyneuropathy, which is damage to several nerves. The nerve damage is most likely due to poisoning of the nerve or nutritional deficiencies from alcoholism. Some symptoms of alcoholic polyneuropathy are tingling and numbness in the arms, legs, feet, and hands.
It leads to rapid weight gain.
Many alcoholic drinks tend to be calorie dense, and the calories add up if you enjoy more than one drink. For example, a 12-ounce serving of craft beer can easily be 170 calories. A glass of syrah? 122 calories. "Alcohol contains empty calories, which helps pack on the pounds leading to obesity. In turn, obesity is one of the leading causes of metabolic problems," says David Diaz, MD, reproductive endocrinologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "Excessive alcohol, like excessive eating, can lead to many undesirable physical ailments like diabetes, insulin resistance, and liver toxicity.
It can cause irregular menstrual cycles.
Diaz says 50 percent of social drinkers who consumed more than three drinks per day and 60 percent of heavy drinkers have significant derangements in their menstrual cycle and reproductive hormone function. Alcohol can disrupt the hormones that regulate menstruation and affect normal reproductive functions, including prolactin. "The major abnormality found in social drinkers was anovulatory cycles, and women who are heavy drinkers had persistent rise in prolactin levels," he says. This hormone promotes milk production during pregnancy and postpartum, but in women who aren't pregnant, high levels of prolactin can cause menstrual irregularities.
It can lead to infertility.
Couples who are trying to conceive should refrain from drinking alcohol or limit their intake. Alcohol overconsumption is associated with chronic diseases, like hypertension, heart disease and liver disease, which make it more difficult for women to become pregnant, according to a 2017 study in Fertility Research and Practice. The same study also found that heavy alcohol consumption can reduce a woman's ovarian reserve and fecundability, which is the probability of achieving pregnancy.
"Alcohol can also affect male fertility. In both women and men, the reproductive systems are regulated by the same stimulating hormones released by the pituitary gland," Diaz says. "Chronic exposure can lead to harmful effects not only in sperm production but also toxicity of the liver, intestinal tract, the brain, and an increase in cancer."
It can decrease the effectiveness of your medications.
When you consume alcohol with any medication, you always run the risk of developing a host of side effects, like headaches, nausea and vomiting, and drowsiness. It also puts you at risk for internal bleeding, heart problems, and breathing issues, according to the NIAAA. That's why it's important to read labels on medications carefully and ask your doctor or pharmacist about drug interactions.
"Drinking alcohol with cholesterol medications like statins can cause liver irritation and elevated liver enzymes. Alcohol can also decrease the effectiveness of other cholesterol medications like fenofibrates," Arthur says. Moreover, "mixing alcohol and medication for chest pain like nitroglycerin as well as blood pressure medications can cause dangerously low blood pressure or abnormal heart rhythms."
It can cause breathing problems.
Alcohol is a depressant, so it naturally slows down your heart rate, and in excessive amounts, it can cause irregular heartbeat and lead to shortness of breath, says Nicole Weinberg, MD, cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center. She notes that people who drink more alcohol are more likely to be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.
Alcohol can also cause breathing issues when consumed with certain medications. "When it is mixed with other drugs, alcohol's full effect on the nervous system is often felt in unexpected ways," Cutler warns. "An anxiety or a sleep medication, which calms you, could make you stop breathing."
It impairs motor function.
Significant alcohol consumption can affect your motor functioning, including your ability to use your hands, walk, drive, and talk.
Mixing alcohol with medications can also affect your behavior and judgment and delays your reaction time. "Mixing certain medications that tend to cause sedation with alcohol can cause extreme sedation, respiratory depression, and psychomotor impairment," says Arthur. She also says that mixing antidepressant medications—such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—with alcohol can cause unusual behavior so it's best to avoid drinking alcohol altogether when taking SSRIs. The Mayo Clinic adds that alcohol counters the benefits of SSRIs and makes the side effects of the drugs, which include nausea, headaches, and drowsiness, worse.
It slows your reflexes.
Because alcohol impairs cognitive function and the way your brain processes information, it can slow down your reaction time and decrease your ability to focus on specific details. This can make you more prone to injury and puts you at risk during dangerous situations. The CDC reports that about 29 people in the United States die in a motor vehicle crash from an alcohol-impaired driver every day. Alcohol abuse also impacts your decision making and social skills, an oft-cited 2000 study in Alcohol and Alcoholism shows.
It makes you more prone to injury.
Heavy drinking can put you at a higher risk for injury and accidents because it impairs your motor skills and decision making. The CDC reports that 10,497 people died from alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2016 alone. Beginning at a blood alcohol concentration of .02 percent, you begin to lose visual functions and ability to perform, so to avoid accidents, health experts recommend designating a sober driver, calling a car service, or planning another safe way home after drinking.