Posted: 8/19/2010 4:24:22 PM
If we only ever drank it once or twice in a lifetime, alcohol would probably do us no significant harm.
Most of us who do drink, however, do it a lot more often than that!
When it comes to our health, it's the effect of drinking regularly over months, years and decades that causes most harm.
What's your poison?
It doesn't matter whether you take it in cocktails, beer, wine, cider
or lager, it's the alcohol that counts. Alcohol affects all kinds of
cells in the body, causing changes in some and stopping others from
working properly. As with most 'poisons', the more you take, the worse
the effects are.
Liver health and alcohol – it's all about . . . timing
Our livers make a special substance that breaks down alcohol and
burns it as fuel. But alcohol exhausts the liver's ability to do this
and too much too often can damage it permanently. Given a chance, the
liver can repair a lot of damage. This is why it's important to drink
sensibly and have non-drinking days as well as not drinking too much at
any one time.
What else can go wrong if I drink too much for too long?
The list is as long as your arm already and researchers around the
world discover new things about alcohol's effects all the time. We've
narrowed it down to the things we're certain about. Pick up a paper
tomorrow, however, and we're sure you'll find more bad news to add to
After smoking, drinking alcohol is the second biggest risk factor for
cancers of the mouth and throat. Drinking and smoking together carries
the highest risk of all. People who develop cirrhosis of the liver
(often caused by too much drink) can develop liver cancer. Women who drink more than three drinks a day increase their risk of breast cancer.
Mental health problems
There is a link between drinking too much alcohol and mental health
problems. Heavy long-term drinking also risks problems with memory loss.
Find out more in our section on alcohol and mental health.
In men over forty and women past the menopause, small amounts of
alcohol (a couple of drinks a day) may reduce the risk of heart disease.
For everyone else, too much alcohol is likely to cause weight gain,
prevent proper exercise and be a cause of heart disease.
Drinking more than the sensible limit
dramatically increases the risk of having a stroke. A 20-year study of
6000 Scottish men found that those who drank more than 5 units a day
were twice as likely to die from a stroke compared with non-drinkers.
Strokes are caused either by blood clots clogging arteries in the
brain (ischaemic stroke) or by blood vessels bursting and leaking into
the brain (haemorrhagic stroke). A very heavy session (more than 8 units
for men, 6 for women) causes dehydration and makes the blood thicker
and more likely to form clots – in the brain and elsewhere. Prolonged
heavy use of alcohol also raises blood pressure and can be another cause
Changes in physical appearance
Alcoholic drinks contain lots and lots of calories so weight gain among people who don't drink sensibly
is common. Alcohol affects the circulation by expanding blood vessels.
This causes thread veins, often on the face, and purple, bulbous
'drinkers nose'. Heavy drinkers usually don't eat properly and too much
alcohol stops the body absorbing the nutrients it needs. This leads to
poor skin and brittle hair and nails.
Regular heavy drinkers are often overweight and, as with all
overweight people, can go on to develop diabetes. Though manageable,
people with diabetes don't live as long and have to eat restricted diets
and take medicines daily or inject themselves with insulin.
Sexual health problems
Too much alcohol shrinks genitals and lowers fertility. Alcohol
should be avoided during pregnancy or while trying to conceive. Being
drunk can loosen inhibitions and affect judgement. This can make it less
likely you'll use a condom or other protection properly (or at all) and
so increase the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease. Find
out more in our section on alcohol and sexual health.
Prolonged heavy drinking makes men's breasts get bigger! Find out why in our section on men and alcohol.
Long-term heavy drinkers can develop this painful condition. The
pancreas makes insulin and other substances needed to properly digest
food. If left untreated, pancreatitis causes malnutrition and can lead
to diabetes. In the UK, around 500 people per year die of
Not only can people fail to remember what went on during a heavy
session, persistent heavy drinkers can develop memory loss problems. A
dementia-like illness called Wernicke-Korsakoff's Syndrome is caused by
Vitamin B1 deficiency, in turn caused by malnutrition brought on by too
much alcohol over too long a period.