Drinking alcohol is associated with a number of serious physical and mental conditions. Find out how it impacts your health and why you should steer clear.

It is common knowledge that drinking too much alcohol increases your risk for health problems, and as a result, the American Heart Association recommends limiting alcoholic drinks to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. Why are these restrictions needed, and how exactly does drinking alcohol affect health? While past studies have shown that low to moderate drinking up to 30 g, or 1 fl oz, of alcohol a day may increase insulin sensitivity and protect against heart disease, alcohol is a toxic substance that has contributed significantly to the prevalence of disease and social loss throughout human history. In fact, the World Health Organization attributes 3 million deaths per year and 200 diseases and injuries to the harmful use of alcohol.

The dangers of ethanol

Once in the stomach, ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient found in alcohol, is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and then carried to all of the tissues and organs in the body. Ethanol’s depressant effects of the central nervous system leading to feelings of relaxation, sedation, and loss of inhibition are probably the most well-known, causing traffic accidents and other hazardous acts of poor judgment.

The effects of alcohol on the body

Ethanol inflicts real damage  to the body as well. The digestive tract and liver take the brunt of alcohol-related organ damage followed by the cardiovascular and neurological systems. As alcohol intake rises, the level of risk to health elevates as well, but evidence shows that drinking 50 g, or 1.7 fl oz, or more per day poses the greatest risk for breast, oral, and esophageal cancers, heart disease, stroke, and liver disease. Also, for people with type 1 diabetes, drinking 20.5 fl oz of wine two to three hours after dinner can result in a drop in blood sugar as low as 34 mg/dl after breakfast the following morning.

The complex relationship between alcohol and the brain

Experts have long known that excessive alcohol use can critically impair memory by causing shrinkage of the brain’s hippocampus region responsible for recollection of information. But the link between alcohol and emotional health has been less understood. Recent evidence found that alcohol shrinks white and gray matter in the brain which is believed to be associated with depression, but it also confirmed that depression often induces alcohol drinking as a tool for coping.  Based on this evidence, mental health seems to be the primary influencer when it comes to alcohol consumption. In other words, depression will more likely drive someone to turn to alcohol rather than the other way around.

Alcohol consumption can lead to malnutrition

Aside from the damaging effects alcohol has on our organs, chronic alcohol drinking also impedes our ability to absorb nutrients by stimulating an appetite-regulating hormone which causes loss of appetite and early fullness while eating. Alcohol also interferes with the way the stomach digests food which hinders absorption of important vitamins and minerals like thiamine, folate, vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium.

Can alcohol cause you to gain weight?

Alcohol use is frequently believed to cause weight gain, but how correct is this assumption?  Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram, and with 14 grams of alcohol found in one drink - 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, and 1.5 oz of liquor - it is easy to see how going out for a few drinks can add a few hundred calories to your daily count. Also, the calories we drink are generally in addition to, not a replacement of, the calories in the foods that we would normally eat. Despite this, the evidence proving that alcohol causes weight gain is still lacking. Gender, physical activity level, sleeping habits, and eating behavior also play important roles in how we manage our weight, so while excessive drinkers do tend to weigh more, the culprit cannot be assigned to alcohol alone.

What about red wine?

Red wine is acclaimed for its protective benefits for the heart, and recent studies confirm why. Due to the high polyphenol anti-oxidant content found in red wine’s grape seed extract, drinking one to two servings of red wine three to four days a week is shown to decrease the risk of heart attack by 32% by helping to maintain healthy blood vessels. Despite this, the evidence is still lacking to recommend those who do not currently drink alcohol to drink red wine as part of a preventive heart health strategy.

What you need to know

In reality, regardless of the current recommendations or documented health benefits, no amount of alcohol is actually safe to consume. A 2018 study examining alcohol use and related death and injury spanning 26 years in 195 locations worldwide found that because such a strong association between alcohol use and cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and injuries exists, any protective health benefits are far outweighed by these serious risks, and so alcohol of any type or amount should not be recommended. So if you do not currently have a drinking habit, do not start. If you choose to drink moderately and occasionally, reduce the effects of alcohol by drinking plenty of water or sports drinks with electrolytes to replenish lost fluids, eat nutrient-dense foods before and after to refill on vitamins and minerals, and exercise to boost your mood and energy.