Drinking too much alcohol can affect your brain, heart, kidneys, and liver, and could shorten your life. Here's what should know and how to cut back.
Americans like to drink. More than half of adults say they've had at least one glass of wine, beer, or hard liquor during the past month. Some are drinking to the point where alcohol is shortening their life.
Before 2020, heavy drinking was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths among adults ages 20 to 49 and 1 in 8 deaths among adults ages 20 to 64, according to a study in JAMA Network. The study, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), included data on nearly 695,000 deaths per year from 2015 to 2019.
What is excess drinking?
The CDC defines excessive alcohol use in two ways:
- Binge drinking: 5 or more drinks on one occasion for men, 4 or more drinks per occasion for women
- Heavy drinking: 15 or more drinks per week for men, 8 or more drinks per week for women
The dangers of drinking
Alcohol might make you feel good in the moment, but it's a toxin that leaves a trail of damage throughout your body. In addition to increasing your risk for accidents and injuries, alcohol is linked to several health conditions.
- Brain: Alcohol disrupts the network of communication involved in memory, speech, and balance.
- Heart: The relationship between alcohol and the heart is a complex one. While moderate drinking might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, in larger amounts alcohol can raise blood pressure and potentially increase your odds of having a stroke.
- Kidneys: These two bean-shaped organs are your body's filters. They remove harmful substances, including alcohol. Heavy drinking damages your kidneys, leaving them less able to filter your blood and regulate the fluid and electrolyte balance.
- Liver: This organ breaks down and removes alcohol from your body. Drinking more than your liver can process leads to scarring (cirrhosis), inflammation, hepatitis, and eventually liver failure. Half of all cirrhosis deaths are from drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Other health conditions linked to excessive drinking include:
- Cancers of the breast, liver, colon or rectum, mouth, throat, head and neck, and esophagus
- Depression and anxiety
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
The more alcohol you consume, the bigger the impact on your health.
How much is too much?
No amount of alcohol consumption is completely safe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
"It doesn’t matter how much you drink — the risk to the drinker's health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage," says Dr. Carina Ferreira-Borges, acting Unit Lead for Noncommunicable Disease Management and Regional Advisor for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs in the WHO Regional Office for Europe.
If you are going to drink, moderation is key. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as:
- Two drinks or fewer a day for men
- One drink or fewer per day for women
What you can do
Cutting back on alcohol, or even quitting, may not be as difficult as you'd expect. According to one CDC study, 9 out of 10 adults who drink too much don't have alcohol use disorder or dependence issues.
If you regularly drink more than the recommended amount, take small steps to reduce your consumption. Cut out one drink a week for a few weeks, then two drinks, and so on.
Reduce your temptation to drink by not bringing alcohol into your home. When you go out to a restaurant or bar, limit yourself to one drink. Sip it slowly to make it last longer. Have a "mocktail" in place of any additional drinks you'd planned to have — or make it your only drink.
If you've tried to cut back on alcohol but you're finding it too difficult, or you continue to drink even though it's causing problems in your life, you may have alcohol use disorder. Talk to your primary care doctor, who can determine whether you have a problem and suggest a treatment plan. You might also try joining a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
June 26, 2023
Janet O'Dell, RN