How Drinking Too Much Can Affect the Body in More Ways Than You May Have Thought
"Drink in moderation."
"Limit alcohol consumption to recommended amounts."
These reminders not to drink too much are so familiar that it can be easy to ignore them, but the warnings have a great deal of research behind them.
Cirrhosis and other liver problems may be among the best-known effects of excessive drinking, but there are many other reasons to avoid drinking too much. Even if drinking is not technically "problem drinking" or "alcoholism," too much alcohol can be associated with a variety of other health concerns.
Staying aware of the effects of alcohol can help motivate you to keep consumption to less risky levels. These are some ways excessive alcohol consumption can affect the body.
How Much Is Okay?
"Moderate alcohol consumption" is defined as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men. More than that is "excessive." A "drink" usually includes 14 grams of alcohol, which means it is 12 oz. of beer with 5% alcohol content, 5 oz. of wine with 12% alcohol content, and 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits with 40% alcohol content.
Effects of Alcohol
Longer-term, these are some possible effects of excessive drinking [1, 2].
Cirrhosis of the liver and increased risk for liver cancer.
Breast, throat, esophagus, and colon cancer.
Depression, anxiety, and reduced productivity.
Alcohol has wide-ranging effects, and excessive consumption can be related to heart problems as well as risk for diabetes.
Alcohol and Your Weight
Alcohol has 7 calories per gram. In comparison, fat has 9 calories per gram (and protein), while carbs such as sugars and starch have 4 calories per gram. With its 14 grams of alcohol, a standard drink has 98 calories from alcohol, plus any other calories from carbs. It also slows your metabolism since it's processed first, so more of your calories from food turn into fat.
A can of beer can have 150 calories, a glass of wine has about 130, and mixed drinks can have 100 to 200 or more calories. Adding these calories regularly without compensating for them can lead to weight gain and eventually obesity. That is a risk factor for diabetes and hypertension.
Alcohol and Diabetes
When it comes to blood sugar, occasional moderate drinking is not likely to be an issue for blood sugar in healthy individuals. The story changes with excessive drinking or in people with diabetes. Over time, too much drinking can lead to insulin resistance and prediabetes or diabetes! In individuals with diabetes, alcohol can lower blood sugar to dangerous levels and cause longer-term problems.
Alcohol and Gout
Gout is a potentially painful condition in which uric acid builds up and forms crystals, especially in the kidneys and around the joints. Uric acid is a metabolic waste product resulting from the breakdown of purines, which are found in foods such as meats and seafood, as well as alcoholic beverages. Beer tends to be highest in purines, and spirits are lowest.
Gout appears to be linked to diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to have gout, and people with gout are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Cutting back on alcohol, limiting red meat and shellfish, and limiting sugar-sweetened sodas and added sugars in foods can lower the risk for both conditions.
Alcohol and Your Blood Pressure
In moderation, alcohol may lower blood pressure (1 drink), although evidence is mixed. National guidelines note that heavy drinkers could potentially lower systolic blood pressure by 4 mm Hg if they limited consumption to recommended levels . High blood pressure is a risk factor for prediabetes and diabetes.
A single drink may also help prevent blood clots, which are responsible for strokes and heart attacks. On the other hand, heavy drinking raises blood pressure and increases the risk for blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes over your lifetime.
Alcohol and Your Cholesterol
Moderate alcohol consumption has mixed effects on blood lipids, or fats, such as cholesterol, that are in your blood. Alcohol has the beneficial effect of raising "good" HDL-cholesterol (again, one drink per day), but it also raises triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides are linked to heart problems and a greater risk for diabetes.
The majority of Americans enjoy alcohol at least occasionally, and that can be a relatively low-risk choice. However, drinking more than the recommended limit can increase the risk for chronic health conditions such as diabetes. If you are a regular drinker or are someone who sometimes drinks heavily, it may be a good idea to get your blood sugar tested.
Whelton, Paul K., Robert M. Carey, Wilbert S. Aronow, Donald E. Casey Jr., Karen J. Collins, Cheryl Dennison Himmelfarb, Sondra M. DePalma, et al. 2018. "2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults." Journal of the American College of Cardiology 71 (19): e127–248.
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