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  • Dr. Lauren O'Byrne

The Impact of Heavy Alcohol Consumption

Excessive alcohol use is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The definition of heavy drinking is consuming eight drinks or more per week for women, and 15 or more for men. People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than those who begin drinking at or after the age of 21.

Alcohol can negatively affect many of your body’s organs. Some examples of health problems caused or exacerbated by alcohol include:

  1. Liver disease Alcohol is mostly metabolized in the liver, which is why the liver is particularly at risk of damage. The body metabolizes alcohol into a substance that is both toxic and carcinogenic to the body. Drinking heavily significantly increases the risk of alcoholic fatty liver, an early and reversible consequence of excessive alcohol intake. Other effects on the liver include long-term inflammation, called alcoholic hepatitis, which can lead to scar tissue. Scarring can completely invade the liver, causing it to be hard and nodular, which is known as cirrhosis.If the liver cannot perform its life-sustaining functions, multiple organ failure and death will occur. Symptoms often develop only after extensive damage has already been done.

  2. Pancreatitis Overconsumption of alcohol can lead to pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the pancreas that often requires hospitalization. Around 70 percent of cases of pancreatitis affect people who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol. Pancreatitis can be life threatening and can lead to problems with digestion including chronic diarrhea.

  3. Cancer Chronic alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing different cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum, and breast. People who smoke tobacco as well as drinking have a higher risk of cancer of the upper gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract and urinary tract.

  4. Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems Heavy drinking can cause problems with the digestive system, such as stomach ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn, and inflammation of the stomach lining, known as gastritis. Damage to the digestive system can also lead to dangerous internal bleeding from enlarged veins in the esophagus related to chronic liver disease. The gastrointestinal tract sustains a considerable amount of damage from alcohol.

  5. Immune system dysfunction Drinking too much weakens the immune system, making the body vulnerable to infectious diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Alcohol causes changes in red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

  6. Brain damage Alcohol is associated with blurred vision, memory lapses, slurred speech, difficulty walking and slowed reaction time. These are all due to its effects on the brain which can interfere with a person’s cognitive function, moods, emotions, and reactions on multiple levels. Long-term heavy drinking can speed up the brain’s normal aging process, resulting in early and permanent dementia. Young adults are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing, which is why binge drinking during college is particularly concerning.

  7. Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies Dysfunctional drinking leads to malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies. This may be due partly to a poor diet, but also because nutrients are not broken down properly.

  8. Osteoporosis Chronic heavy alcohol consumption, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood, can dramatically affect bone health, and it may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, with a loss of bone mass, later on in life. Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures, especially in the proximal femur of the hip.

  9. Heart disease and cardiovascular health Heavy alcohol use can cause blood pressure to be high, which can adversely impact the heart. Excessive alcohol intake has long been linked to multiple cardiovascular complications, including angina, high blood pressure and a risk of heart failure. Stroke is a potentially deadly complication of binge drinking.

  10. Accidents and injuries Drinking alcohol in any amount is linked to car crashes, domestic violence, falls, drowning, occupational injuries, suicide, and homicide. Driving ability may be impaired with as little as one drink. No pattern of drinking is entirely risk-free, and there is no reliable method of predicting how or when an individual will be harmed because of chronic, heavy drinking.

Being open with your health care provider about the amount of alcohol you drink can help us evaluate your personal risk for any or all of the above complications. Your Spry physicians can then help you minimize your personal health risk and guide you to appropriate diagnostic tests and treatment if appropriate.

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