Raise Your Glasses… Then Place Them Back Down

Think what you will about alcohol use, but a culture of drinking is part of our heritage and lifestyle. While many people abstain due to health, religious, or moral concerns, millions of Americans and people around the globe imbibe socially, use wine in religious ceremonies, binge drink, or abuse alcohol for a variety of reasons varying from habit to pain relief to genetics.

Many people enjoy the experience of being lightly intoxicated including reduced inhibitions and stimulation, and drinking is a normal part of many of our every-day rituals and customs here in the United States and around the world.

But drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can have serious consequences for our health. These consequences go far beyond having a headache and a hangover that make us uncomfortable but go away relatively quickly.

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. Most people recognize that excessive drinking can lead to accidents and dependence, and can cause liver disease. But that’s only part of the story. Unlike other drugs, alcohol disperses in all body tissues and therefore has the potential to harm many organ systems. Alcohol abuse can damage organs, weaken the immune system, and contribute to a variety of cancers. Plus, much like smoking, alcohol affects different people differently. Genes, environment, and even diet can play a role in whether you develop an alcohol-related disease.

On the flip side, some people may actually benefit from drinking alcohol in small quantities. Alcohol’s effect on our heart is the best example of alcohol’s dual effects. Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can cause heart problems including high blood pressure, strokes, arrhythmia, and cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes our heart muscle to weaken and droop. But research also shows that healthy people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (such as red wine) may have a lower risk of developing coronary artery disease than people who never drink at all.

Putting drinking in perspective

If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage once in a great while, you’re in good company: According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), seven out of 10 Americans report drinking alcohol at some point in the past year, and 56% drank in the past month. However, 26.9% of people ages 18 or over reported that they engaged in binge drinking, and 7% in heavy alcohol use regularly.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) – or problem drinking – was reported in 15.1 million adults age 18 and over, with 1.3 million Americans seeking help in treatment facilities for drinking problems. What’s even more frightening is that, according to NSDUH, 623,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 were reported suffering from AUD, resulting in 37,000 treated at medical or rehabilitation facilities.

Approximately 90,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Close to 10,000 Americans die in alcohol-related car accidents annually, and alcohol misuse costs our country approximately $250 billion in health-related expenses, lost work time, and other factors such as reduced productivity and accidents.

How alcohol hurts us

While drinking in moderation may not affect the health of our liver, heavy drinking can definitely take its toll. The liver helps rid our bodies of substances that can be dangerous, including alcohol. By breaking down alcohol, the liver produces toxic byproducts that damage liver cells, promote inflammation, and weaken the body’s natural defenses. This can make conditions ripe for disorders like steatosis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis, and dangerous inflammations like hepatitis to develop.

Pancreatic inflammations can also develop in response to drinking too much. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually cause inflammation and swelling in tissues in blood vessels. This inflammation, called pancreatitis, prevents the pancreas from digesting food and converting it into fuel to power our bodies.

Aside from damaging our organs, drinking too much alcohol can also increase our risk of developing certain cancers, including those of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast.

Alcohol also can weaken our immune systems, making our bodies a much easier target for disease. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows our body’s ability to ward off infections, even up to 24 hours after getting drunk. Chronic drinkers are more likely to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much.

So while some light to moderate drinking may not hurt you, it’s important to understand the toxic, longer-term effects of alcohol and use common sense when drinking any alcoholic beverage. We may never be a nation of teetotalers, but understanding what we put in our bodies and making smart decisions about our health will always work in our favor.