From your holiday office party to family gatherings, the holidays are reason for celebration — usually with alcohol.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, in part because the holidays give you so many excuses and opportunities to gather with your friends and family. And if you have a constant schedule of dinners and parties, you can expect to indulge in good food and drinks. (No shame if that’s the primary reason you even show up.)
Still, constant socializing — and the drinking that often goes with it — means you may be indulging in more wine, beer or liquor than usual. That can have serious repercussions on your body, particularly on your liver.
Drinking heavily over time can cause different types of inflammation in the liver, such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Any insult to the liver, including that caused by alcohol, actually can be carcinogenic. It’s not that surprising that liver cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the world.
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“There are still people drinking alcohol, and as long as alcohol is around, we’ll have patients with the alcoholic liver cirrhosis,” said Yuri Genyk, MD, professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and surgical director of the liver transplant program at Keck Medicine of USC. “It’s just a reality that we deal with.”
In addition to the harm done to your liver, alcohol can also affect your brain. It disrupts your brain’s communication pathways, which can alter your mood and behavior — not to mention throw off your coordination and critical thinking skills.
Alcohol, both over time and after a single incident of binge-drinking, can damage the heart, leading to stroke, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats. That may be why the rate of deadly heart attacks spikes during the winter holiday season, a phenomenon also known as “holiday heart syndrome.” While the exact factors behind the trend haven’t been confirmed, researchers guess that alcohol may play a role.
Your immune system takes a hit, too. Even one night of drinking a little too much can impair your body’s ability to evade infections for up to 24 hours afterward. So if you’re prone to colds or sinus infections in the winter, monitor your alcohol intake to avoid illness this winter. (Anyone who’s had a sinus infection knows that it’s a worthy tradeoff.)
Finally, drinking regularly also puts you at risk for alcoholism. Dr. Genyk called it “business alcoholism,” which occurs in people in positions that require a lot of socializing, meetings and parties. Obviously, drinking in moderation and socially — say, on the weekends or a few times during the week — is normal and typically doesn’t merit concern. But the sense that you cannot live without alcohol is a sign of a larger problem, which should be addressed with substance abuse treatment (such as Alcoholics Anonymous).
Despite the risks, you don’t have to live a teetotal lifestyle all winter long. Just be mindful of how much and how often you’re drinking. Not only will you be healthier for it, but you also won’t have to handle a single hangover.
By Deanna Pai
If you’re concerned about how your alcohol intake has affected your liver, make an appointment with one of our liver specialists. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.