Everyday Health

What Does Heavy Drinking Do to Your Body?

Originally published March 22, 2018

Last reviewed May 11, 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You may have heard alcohol has some health benefits, but you should read this before you pick up your next drink.

When it comes to your health, alcohol is a double-edged sword. Light to moderate drinking has been shown to have some cardiovascular health benefits. But heavy drinking can have detrimental effects. With drinking, the amount you consume makes all the difference — and you certainly shouldn’t start drinking for the health benefits.

First, let’s define what a “drink” is. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes one alcoholic drink as containing 14 grams of pure alcohol. This is found in approximately:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of table wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which are about 40% alcohol

According to Sharon Orrange, MD, a primary care physician at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical associate professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, people tend to underestimate their alcohol intake.

Moderate drinking, according to the latest dietary guidelines, is the consumption of no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. According to the NIAAA, heavy or “at-risk” drinking can mean either a lot of drinks at one time (more than three for women and four for men) or a lot of drinks spaced out (more than seven per week for women and 14 per week for men).

So, why does this type of drinking put you at risk? Here are some of the negative health effects on your body.

1. Your liver gets damaged.

The most well-known problems involving heavy drinking have to do with the liver. Because your body can’t store alcohol, it has to metabolize it right away. So the liver, which detoxes your body, has to work overtime to process it. The damage this does can lead to a condition known as fatty liver disease. This can then be followed by cirrhosis, which is scarring that can cause your liver to stop working properly. The classic sign of cirrhosis is jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and eyes.

2. Your brain doesn’t function at its best.

Everyone knows that when you get drunk, you slur your speech, feel drowsy, have problems with your motor functions and sometimes can’t remember everything the next day. This is because too much alcohol can slow the communication of neurotransmitters in your brain.

3. Your heart gets stressed.

There has been some research that suggests small amounts of alcohol can be beneficial to the heart — but once you start drinking heavily, those benefits go out the window. Alcohol can lead to stress on your heart, causing it to beat irregularly. Other cardiovascular problems caused by alcohol include high blood pressure and risk of stroke.

4. Your risk of cancer goes up.

Heavy drinking can lead to throat and mouth cancers. Research has also found a link between alcohol and breast cancer.

5. Your immune system takes a hit.

You might notice you get sick more often because of the toll alcohol takes on your immune system. Drinking a large amount of alcohol on one occasion can make you more susceptible to getting sick for up to 24 hours afterward.

Topics

alcohol consumption
cancer risks
Dr. Sharon Orrange
fatty liver disease
heart health
immune system
Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.