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13 ways alcohol abuse damages health

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on January 15, 2024

While a few occasional drinks may seem harmless, alcohol is a toxin that can do major damage to your health. Alcohol Research revealed that “twenty-five chronic disease and condition codes in the International Classification of Disease (ICD)-10 are entirely attributable to alcohol.”

Too much booze can negatively affect your brain, spike your blood pressure, stress your organs and immune system, and increase your risk for all kinds of cancer. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol dependence, help is available. Our rehab center in Provo, Utah can help you break the cycle of alcohol addiction through comprehensive treatment including medically monitored alcohol detox, psychotherapy, group support, and aftercare planning. 

Your journey to sober living begins with one call.

Table of Contents

I recently had the good fortune to receive treatment at Ardu, and am so grateful for everyone there. All of the employees from the administration to the counselors, nurses and techs were awesome. I received the very latest in medical treatment, along with in-depth counseling and behavioral therapy, that allowed me to begin my recovery in a loving and supportive environment… thanks to Ardu Recovery Center!

Susan H


What are the symptoms of excessive drinking?

Alcohol is an addictive substance that can have negative health effects even in small amounts. While many believe that low levels of drinking may not cause harm, research shows that any amount of booze can impact the brain and body. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests that:

Just one or two alcoholic drinks can impair your balance, coordination, impulse control, memory, and decision-making. This increases your risk of injuries. Too much alcohol can also shut down parts of your brain that are essential for keeping you alive. Over the long term, alcohol can increase your risk of more than 200 different diseases. 

Binge drinking and heavy regular consumption of alcoholic beverages can lead to severe repercussions. Here’s how to recognize when you start drinking too much:

  • Severe drunkenness which increases accidental injury risk
  • Slurred speech, lack of coordination
  • Nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea
  • Memory loss, confusion, blackouts
  • Breathing impairment
  • Irregular heartbeat, heart issues
  • Depression, anxiety, aggression
  • Problems with the liver
  • Pancreatic damage
  • Nerve damage and pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Sleep cycle disruption
  • Loss of motivation and focus
  • Work, education, or relationship problems

These signs may indicate the need to seek professional help and make major lifestyle changes to avoid further health deterioration. It’s important to recognize the symptoms early and prevent progression to more severe alcohol addiction-related harm. 

Our compassionate, skilled professionals at Ardu’s alcohol rehab center can help you every step of the way. 

What are the effects of alcohol?

Alcohol doesn’t do any favors for your health. It triggers systemic inflammation and dehydration while depleting nutrients your organs need. Prolonged excessive alcohol exposure slowly chips away at the integrity of vital systems throughout the body. 

Here’s how:

  • Alcohol triggers inflammation. Even one drink causes swelling throughout the body. Prolonged inflammation paves the way for chronic diseases such as alcoholic liver disease, pancreatitis, and cancer.
  • Alcohol is neurotoxic. It bombs the nervous system by overstimulating and then depleting key neurotransmitters in the brain. Over time, brain cells shrink leading to impaired functions like learning, memory, and coordination.
  • Alcohol has diuretic effects. Drinking can lead to a sensitive bladder as alcohol suppresses antidiuretic hormone (ADH). Frequent urination from alcohol consumption leaves you dangerously dehydrated if fluids aren’t replaced.
  • Alcohol causes nutritional deficiencies. Absorbing all those calories from alcohol prevents proper absorption of some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • Alcohol disrupts sleep. It may help you doze off initially, but more than a couple of drinks hampers restorative deep sleep and REM cycles. Both the amount of quality sleep and total sleep duration are reduced.
  • Alcohol accelerates aging. Inflammation and free radicals from drinking eat away at cells, fraying DNA strands and mitochondria to mimic accelerated aging. Moderate drinkers can appear up to 15 years older than their chronological age.
  • Too much drinking can cause alcohol poisoning. Going overboard with large amounts overwhelms your system’s ability to process the toxins. Alcohol poisoning suppresses respiration and heart rate to dangerously low levels.
  • Too much alcohol leads to dependence and addiction. Regular heavy drinking flips the addiction switch by co-opting the brain’s reward and motivation circuits around alcohol. Cravings and involuntary drinking become the new normal without support.

If you think you may have a drinking problem, read our article on the signs of alcohol addiction.

How does heavy drinking affect the body?

Alcohol’s detrimental effects sprawl far and wide, impacting organ systems small and large and driving disease progression. A 2022 study conclusively shows that excessive drinking significantly contributes to the onset and progression of detrimental health conditions in consumers as well as harms family members.

Alcohol seldom leaves any system untouched as far as leaving its impression is concerned, spanning from single tissue involvement to complex organ system manifestations. Almost all the major organs that make up a human’s physiological being are dramatically affected by the overconsumption of alcohol. 

The study also found that alcohol abuse is a massive economic burden. Let’s take a look at all the negative ways alcohol affects your body.

One: heavy drinking damages the brain

Booze packs a one-two punch for your brain. First, it overstimulates and then dampens chemicals that nerve cells use to communicate. Alcohol’s toxicity can lead to a significant loss of brain cells, impairing your cognition and memory. 

Heavy drinkers may even end up with permanent structural changes such as the shrinkage of brain tissue. Research shows that “alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure.”

The good news is your brain can recover after you stop drinking

Two: alcohol leads to liver disease

Alcohol unleashes a heavy hit on the liver. Alcohol’s main molecule, ethanol, is metabolized in the liver, which puts a lot of stress on an already hard-working organ. Osna, et. al. suggest that “chronic and excessive alcohol consumption produces a wide spectrum of hepatic lesions, the most characteristic of which are steatosis, hepatitis, and fibrosis/cirrhosis.” 

Over time, excessive alcohol consumption kills off cells and leads to fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. Without abstinence or treatment, complete liver failure is a real possibility, which has life-threatening complications. 

Your liver may heal when you quit alcohol, so make sure you bolster its recovery in every way possible. Contact Ardu and get all the help you need.

Three: alcohol can lead to cardiovascular disease

Heavy drinking stresses the heart. While a drink may relax blood vessels initially, over time it can cause high blood pressure, erratic heart rhythms, and weakened circulation. 

A 2022 study found a “risk-increasing association between all amounts of alcohol consumption and both hypertension and coronary artery disease, with modest increases in risk with light alcohol intake and exponentially greater risk increases at higher levels of consumption.”

Some research seems to suggest that light-to-moderate drinking may have cardioprotective effects, but the results are inconclusive. If you want to improve your heart health, turn to a nutrient-rich diet, stress management, and other heart-healthy lifestyle measures instead of booze.

Four: small amounts of alcohol disrupt the GI tract

Alcohol directly irritates the stomach lining, even in small amounts, sometimes triggering gastritis and a plethora of nasty symptoms. It also amps up intestinal permeability, microscopic holes that let toxins and bugs leak through. 

…alcohol interferes with gastric acid secretion and with the activity of the muscles surrounding the stomach. Similarly, alcohol may impair the muscle movement in the small and large intestines, contributing to the diarrhea frequently observed in alcoholics. (Bode and Bode)

Alcohol can also weaken the esophageal sphincter, causing acid reflux. It damages the esophageal lining, potentially increasing esophageal cancer risk.

Five: alcohol’s inflammatory properties cause pancreatitis

Alcohol-induced inflammation damages pancreatic cells and disrupts the normal functioning of enzymes, leading to pancreatitis. Klockhov, et. al. revealed that “recurrent bouts of acute pancreatitis are associated with progression to chronic pancreatitis and are more common in chronic abusers of alcohol.”

Continued alcohol intake may lead to pancreatic fibrosis, a condition where healthy tissue is replaced by scar tissue. This compromises the pancreas’s structural integrity and functionality.

Six: excessive drinking damages your kidneys

Drinking alcohol can affect the kidneys, and even increase your risk of developing kidney disease. Research shows that both acute and chronic consumption of alcohol can compromise kidney function and cause damage to the kidneys.

A 2017 study found a connection between alcohol misuse and kidney injury. Since alcohol is a diuretic, regular heavy drinking and binge drinking can cause severe dehydration, which can lead to acute kidney injury.

Do you want to kick the booze and let your kidneys take a breather? Contact us and start your sobriety journey today.

Seven: alcohol disrupts hormones

Booze disrupts the hormonal balance. Alcohol overrides signals across male and female fertility hormones, sabotaging conception efforts and fetal development. Heavy drinking tanks testosterone levels which can throw men out of balance sexually and physically. For women, just a couple of drinks a day may affect estrogen levels enough to increase some cancer risks. 

Read about the health risks of alcohol for men, and learn all about how ladies can suffer from heavy alcohol use.

Eight: alcohol wrecks the immune system

Excessive drinking suppresses your immune system and weakens key immune cells that combat infection. According to a 2015 study, there was a clear “association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects.”

Sarkar, et. al. show that “alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways. These disruptions can impair the body’s ability to defend against infection, contribute to organ damage associated with alcohol consumption, and impede recovery from tissue injury.”

Nine: heavy drinking leads to cancer

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is carcinogenic, and “no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.”

Alcohol is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance and has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer decades ago…

Alcohol is metabolized into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that damages DNA and stops cells from repairing replication errors, leading to uncontrolled cell growth. A 2020 global study found that about 4.1% of all new cancer cases worldwide were caused by heavy alcohol consumption. 

Ten: heavy drinking impairs skin health

Alcohol takes a tremendous toll on the skin, directly triggering and exacerbating many common skin conditions. Heavy drinking can cause:

  • Dehydration and dryness
  • Dilated blood vessels and skin redness
  • Premature aging 
  • Acne and skin irritation
  • Rosacea flushing and burning
  • Spider veins and visible capillaries
  • Increased skin infections and irritation

We can help you break addiction and set you on the path to sobriety. Our healthcare team provides a residential treatment program that includes both skin damage repair sessions, as well as counseling on nutrition and lifestyle changes to regain your health.

Eleven: alcohol impairs reproductive health and sexual function

Alcohol has detrimental effects on the reproductive health and sexual function of both men and women. Heavy drinking lowers testosterone while contributing to erectile dysfunction and reduced fertility in males. This leads to lowered libido, difficulty achieving and sustaining erections, and problems with sexual satisfaction.

A drink or two a day for women can disrupt menstrual cycles and hormone balance, causing irregular periods, heightened PMS symptoms, reduced fertility, earlier menopause onset, and an elevated risk of some hormone-influenced cancers.

Twelve: drinking is bad for oral health

For people with alcohol use disorder, drinking disrupts the homeostatic balance within the oral cavity, impacting everything from teeth and gums to the development of bacteria and dry mouth. Research shows that “alcohol dependent subjects had slightly lower mean plaque and salivary pH and a higher prevalence of dental caries, periodontitis and mucosal lesions…”

A 2017 study found that alcohol “inevitably affects the oral cavity, oral mucosa and teeth,” while those dependent on alcohol “may have increased risk of dental caries, probing pocket depth and mucosal lesions.” When bacteria in the mouth break down sugars and produce enamel-eroding acid, you get dental caries (tooth decay) and deep dental caries (cavities). 

Alcohol accelerates the development of both due to its dehydrating effects, limiting saliva flow that would normally neutralize acids and remineralize teeth.

Thirteen: excessive consumption is linked to obesity

Regular heavy alcohol consumption can lead to significant weight gain over time. Alcohol is high in calories and impairs metabolism, resulting in excess calorie intake and storage as visceral fat around the abdomen. The abdominal fat deposition caused by heavy drinking is commonly known as “beer belly.”

An Irish study found that “harmful alcohol consumption was associated with obesity (high BMI, large WC)… Frequent binge drinkers were more likely to have a large [waist circumference], while frequent alcohol consumers were less likely to have obesity.”

This may look bleak, but many negative effects of alcohol can be reversed. Ditch the bottle and choose something healthier to sip on to protect your health.

If you are worried about the adverse effects of booze, it’s time to get help. Contact Ardu and discuss your options with our knowledgeable and caring specialists.

What are the mental effects of alcohol?

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Many people turn to booze when they’re stressed or feeling down, thinking it will improve their mood, but the truth is that alcohol wrecks mental health. It may impart short-term effects such as lowered inhibition, relaxation, and euphoria, but the long-term effects of heavy, chronic drinking on mental health pave the way for many psychiatric disorders. 

Studies show that alcohol use disorders often co-occur with and exacerbate psychiatric and mental health issues, such as: 

  • Depression: while alcohol may briefly boost mood, it ultimately exacerbates depression by depleting serotonin, dopamine, and GABA neurotransmitters. This exacerbates severe depressive symptoms of sadness, hopelessness, irritability, and loss of pleasure.
  • Anxiety disorders: alcohol provides temporary relief from anxiety but makes it worse by lowering GABA and glutamate levels while increasing cortisol. 
  • Bipolar disorder: people suffering from bipolar disorder are highly prone to alcohol abuse. Alcohol worsens mood instability characterized by more extreme manic and depressive phases. 
  • Schizophrenia: alcohol abuse is common for people with schizophrenia. Heavy drinking hinders its management by altering brain chemistry, reality testing, medication effectiveness, and destabilizing behavior.
  • Dementia: excessive alcohol consumption accelerates shrinkage of the brain’s frontal lobes, leading to earlier onset of dementia marked by profound memory loss and personality changes.
  • Eating disorder: alcoholism is linked to bulimia and anorexia through the negative effects of alcohol on appetite control, metabolism, mental health, and inhibitions. 
  • Personality disorder: alcohol dependency often co-occurs in cluster B disorders such as antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic tendencies. Drinking provides dysfunctional coping for emotions and instability, but alcohol then reinforces personality disorder behaviors and symptoms.

Overcoming alcohol addiction is a challenging journey. With professional guidance, compassionate support, and proven treatments, recovery is possible. At Ardu, we offer a full spectrum of alcohol treatment options to help you triumph over addiction.

Ardu’s rehabilitation process and treatment programs

The first step in treatment is getting you safely through detox. Ardu Recovery Center offers both medical detox and holistic detox supervised by caring experts.

  • Medical detox uses medications to relieve a wide range of alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Holistic detox relies on nutrition therapy, supplements, acupuncture, and other non-pharmacological therapies to aid your body’s natural detoxification.

Once detoxification is complete, rehabilitation begins. We use proven forms of psychotherapy to uncover the root causes of your alcoholism and acquire the skills needed for recovery.

Ardu offers several forms of sustainable treatment options so that all dedicated to recovery can find the right support for their unique situations.

Many battling alcohol addiction often have a co-occurring mental illness such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, or bipolar disorder. We’re highly experienced in dual diagnosis treatment, simultaneously addressing both the addiction and associated psychiatric symptoms. Integrated care leads to better outcomes.

Our dual diagnosis services include:

To enroll in an Ardu alcohol rehab program, contact us online or via phone (801-810-1234). We will work with you to find a recovery path that suits your needs throughout the detox process and beyond. 

Alcohol health effects FAQ

Can you drink alcohol and be healthy?

Overall health depends on a broad range of factors. It is entirely possible to be in good health while drinking small amounts of alcohol—but you’d almost certainly be in even better health if you abstained.

Alcohol is inherently unhealthy, with the damage increasing with the amount consumed. While some research suggests potential health benefits from light to moderate drinking, alcohol is a known neurotoxin. While there might be a safe level of drinking for some people, it’s best for many people to avoid alcohol altogether. 

Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to different types of cancer, liver disease, heart disease, and mental decline. 

Is it bad to drink once a week?

One drink per week may not have immediate health impacts, but over the years, it can raise risks for alcohol-related diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis and liver cancer, heart failure, renal failure, and an increased risk of injury while intoxicated. Regular weekly drinking maintains elevated inflammation, stress hormone imbalance, and other system disruptions. It also primes brain pathways for addiction and can spur increasingly habitual drinking. 

How long can you live drinking 12 beers a day?

Twelve beers daily are equivalent to 1,800 “standard” drinks annually—which is an extremely dangerous level of drinking. Depending on genetics and other factors, it could lead to obesity, ascites,  alcoholic liver disease, or other complications. Even still, 20% of people with late-stage liver failure die within a month of diagnosis. Long-term heavy drinking of this amount would likely result in death within 10 years.

What does 20 years of drinking do to your body?

After 20 years of consistent drinking, health declines across the board. Brain volume shrinks at double the rate of normal aging, increasing the risk of dementia. Liver scarring and cell mutation elevate causing chronic disease, heart muscle weakens, increasing the likelihood of heart failure, cancers metastasizing, and immunity falters from nutrient deficiencies and bacterial imbalance. 

Is 20 beers a week too much?

20 beers weekly exceeds moderate drinking limits for men by about 50% and is considered heavy alcohol use. This level of drinking has a high likelihood of developing alcohol-related problems over time including liver disease, some cancers, heart failure, and mental decline. Even without a full-blown addiction, consuming 3 beers daily causes brain changes and physical damage. It’s best to not exceed two standard drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. It’s even better to abstain from alcohol entirely.

Does the body need alcohol?

The human body has zero nutritional or functional requirements for alcohol. Unlike macronutrients, alcohol provides no energy, proteins, vitamins, or essential minerals. Alcohol is directly toxic to living cells. Any perceived stress-relieving benefit is counteracted by alcohol suppressing natural neurotransmitter balance. Regular exposure leads to structural and functional damage throughout the body and brain. 

What is considered moderate alcohol consumption?

Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. This equates to a maximum of 7 standard drinks weekly for women and 14 weekly for men. 

One standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol and equals 12 oz regular beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz liquor. Drinking above weekly limits regularly is considered heavy alcohol use and it puts you at risk of alcohol use disorder. Even staying within moderate consumption guidelines carries some risk of alcohol-related health issues when sustained for years.

How can I reduce my risk of harm from alcohol?

The only guaranteed way to minimize your alcohol-related health risk is by avoiding it completely since no consumption level has been deemed “safe”. Short of abstaining, you can significantly cut your chance of harm by staying within or below national weekly drinking limits: 7 standard drinks for women, 14 for men, preferably spread out. This helps restrict total exposure over a lifetime, minimizing DNA mutation risk and cumulative cell damage that increases the risk of cancer, liver cirrhosis, and neurological disorders. 

What are the long-term effects of alcohol addiction?

Long-term alcohol use, defined as regular drinking over months and years, has widespread harmful effects throughout the body and brain. Cumulative toxicity can silently damage cells and DNA integrity to spur cancer, organ damage, and acceleration of age-related mental decline. 

Prolonged intake stresses the liver leading to fatty deposits, inflammation, and permanent scarring that disrupts its crucial filtering role. Alcohol also causes changes in brain connections and volume loss that worsen over the years, risking key functions like memory, coordination, and mood regulation. Even drinking within weekly limits accumulates risk over decades. Exceeding “safe” drinking levels compounds harmful effects.

Can pregnant women drink?

Any alcohol intake by pregnant women raises the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Alcohol in the blood can cross into the developing baby’s system, bombarding vulnerable new cells with toxicity. This can profoundly disrupt healthy development, structurally altering the formation of facial features, organs, the central nervous system, and more depending on timing and dose. 

The most severe cases of fetal alcohol syndrome cause stunted growth, intellectual disabilities, and birth defects. More limited exposure early on may cause subtle but irreversible neurological dysfunction. Thus there is no safe amount of drinking during pregnancy that has been confirmed. As far as we know, harm to the fetus begins starting from the mother’s first drink.


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