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

Alcohol is a double-edged sword when it comes to your health. 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 percent alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12 percent alcohol
  • 5 ounces of distilled spirits, which are about 40 percent alcohol

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).

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“I think we all underestimate our intake,” said Sharon Orrange, MD, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a primary care physician at Keck Medicine of USC. “It’s seven drinks a week for women. Men can have two drinks a night. I tell [my patients] pick two to three nights during the week — say Monday, Tuesday, Thursday — that [you’re] not going to drink at all.”

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

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. 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.

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. Long-term heavy drinking can cause brain cells and the brain itself to shrink, leading to problems with cognitive function, memory, sleep and mood.

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 pump blood ineffectively or beat irregularly. Other cardiovascular problems caused by alcohol include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and risk of stroke. In addition, the extra calories in alcohol can contribute to being overweight or obese, another risk factor for heart disease.

Your risk of cancer goes up.

Heavy drinking can lead to throat and mouth cancers. Although doctors aren’t totally sure why alcohol is connected to these cancers, some believe it could be because the toxins in alcohol lead to cell damage. But, alarmingly, research has also found a link between alcohol and breast cancer. This could be explained by the fact that alcohol alters hormones in the body, which could increase the risk for breast cancer.

In addition, you might notice you get sick more often because of the toll alcohol takes on your immune system. And the liver, brain and heart are not the only organs feeling the effects — you might also be at risk for pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation of the pancreas.

The bottom line? Alcohol may have some benefits, but more than one or two drinks a day can leave your body worn out from all the work it’s doing to remove the alcohol from your system.

By Tina Donvito

If you’re concerned about the effects of alcohol on your body, make an appointment with one of our specialists at Keck Medicine of USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.