Drinking alcohol in moderation can have mildly positive health effects, but regular or excessive use can lead to addiction, an increased risk of developing chronic diseases, and other undesirable outcomes.
While the biological effects of consuming ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks, are fairly straightforward, other aspects can be complex and vary greatly between individuals; the type of alcohol is also a consideration.
The most popular recreational drug worldwide, alcohol exerts powerful effects on mood, often decreasing inhibitions so people act in ways they wouldn’t if they were sober. This can lead to saying or doing things that are regretted later. (1, 2)
Alcohol is made by fermenting foods rich in carbohydrates, like grains (beer) or grapes (wine), with yeast, producing ethanol as the yeast digests the sugar.
Alcohol is processed by the liver, which is the organ responsible for neutralizing toxins in the body. Excessive alcohol consumption can negatively impact liver function, compromising its ability to perform regular maintenance work. (3)
Binge drinking, or consuming large amounts of alcohol, can lead to inflammation of the liver. This may progress to cirrhosis, where liver cells die and the body replaces them with scar tissue. The condition is irreversible and causes serious health problems. (6, 7)
Let’s look at the different ways drinking alcohol can affect your health.
- Brain Function
Ethanol decreases the ability of brain cells to communicate with one another, which accounts for many of the symptoms of drunkenness.
Heavy drinking raises the risk of developing dementia, and the brain can actually shrink in middle-aged and elderly people. (10)
However, moderate drinking reduces the risk of dementia in the elderly. (11)
Evidence indicates that depression and alcohol use each make it more likely for the other to be present, but alcohol consumption appears to be the dominant causal factor. (12)
People who suffer from anxiety or depression often drink to improve mood, but mental health can suffer as the cycle continues. (13)
Drinking heavily can cause depression for some, and improvements are usually noted when abuse is treated. (14)
- Weight Control
Alcohol is rich in calories at about 7 per gram; beer delivers a comparable amount of sugar to a sweetened soft drink, and wine may double that. (15)
- Heart Health
A meta-analysis of data indicates heavy drinkers are more vulnerable to heart disease and related conditions, while light to moderate drinkers have a decreased risk. (20)
Some of the potentially positive effects of moderate alcohol consumption on heart health include higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind), lower blood pressure and the temporary relief of stress and anxiety. (21, 22, 23)
- Type 2 Diabetes
About 8% of the world’s population is affected by the metabolic disorder known as type 2 diabetes. (24)
With the insulin resistance present in type 2 diabetes, sugar intake by cells is decreased; this condition appears to be positively impacted by light to moderate drinking. (25)
Studies show blood sugar levels in diabetics are reduced by 16% – 37% after meals accompanied by alcohol when compared with water. (26)
But heavy drinking has the opposite effect, increasing the risk of developing diabetes. (27)
Drinking alcohol, even moderately, jacks up the risk of developing mouth and throat cancer by 20%. (28)
Risk factors for cancer climb with the amount of alcohol consumed. (31)
The leading cause of preventable birth defects in the US today is alcohol abuse during pregnancy. (32)
Heavy drinking early in pregnancy carries with it a serious risk of negatively impacting the baby’s growth, intelligence, and behavior, as well as other developmental factors. These issues can affect the child for a lifetime. (33)
- Alcohol and Dying
Moderate and light drinkers appear to have a decreased risk of premature death in Western countries. (34)
But the abuse of alcohol ranks third in causes of preventable death. (35)
This figure includes death due to chronic diseases brought on by excessive alcohol consumption, as well as traffic fatalities and social issues.
Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, affects an estimated 12% of Americans at some point during their lifetime. (36)
Alcoholism can be characterized by a variety of symptoms, including cravings for alcohol, not being able to choose whether or not to drink, and losing self-control when drinking. (37)
Family history and genetics may be strong risk factors for developing alcoholism, as well as mental health and social environment.
If drinking alcohol causes problems in your life, you may have an alcohol dependence.
How Types and Amounts of Alcohol Affect Health
Your choice of alcohol is much less important to overall health than how much you drink.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers these definitions of what’s considered a standard drink: (38)
- Spirits – 1.5 ounces contains about 40% alcohol
- Beer – 12 ounces at about 5% alcohol
- Malt liquor – 8 or 9 ounces contains about 7% alcohol
- Table wine – 5 ounces at about 12% alcohol
Moderate drinking is defined as one drink daily for women and two drinks for men. Heavy drinking is considered three drinks daily for women and four for men. (39)
Some people find it impossible to drink moderately, while others can manage it easily. It’s up to you to monitor your relationship with alcohol and manage it according to personal health and wellness goals.
Summary: Individual circumstances and genetic makeup play large roles in how people react to alcohol consumption. Moderate use can be harmless and perhaps even beneficial, while binge drinking and alcohol abuse is a destructive pattern that can lead to disastrous health problems.