Numerous studies exist on the impact of alcohol on people’s health. The results can seem obvious at times: Drinking large amounts of alcohol can put you at a risk for many health conditions, including, but not limited to:
- Heart disease
- Alcohol abuse
- Alcohol addiction
In most research, there is a clear link between excessive drinking and negative health conditions.
On the other hand, many studies over the years have suggested that moderate drinking can help improve your health, as long as it is limited to a certain number of drinks per week. The specific health effects depend on the type of alcohol, such as the potential for drinking a glass of wine once per day to improve heart health.
How Much Alcohol Is Healthy?
While the findings of such studies may seem like great news to the casual drinker, they’re not as beneficial as you may think. A newer study has found that, despite previous research, there is no healthy amount of alcohol.
Recent Study Published in The Lancet Comes to a Different Conclusion
Medical journal The Lancet published a study in August that made waves in regard to global alcohol consumption. English researchers Robyn Burton and Nick Sheron took a closer look at the 2016 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study (GBD), which gathered data on 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2016. Burton called the GBD 2016 “the most comprehensive estimate of the global burden of alcohol use to date.”
Results of Burton and Sheron’s Analysis of the GBD 2016
The GBD 2016 had already found that alcohol was the seventh-leading risk factor for death, as well as for disability or shortened lifespan. In those between the ages of 15 and 49 years old, alcohol was the leading risk factor for both death and shortened lifespan in 2016.
According to Burton and Sheron’s report after their analysis of the GBD 2016, “The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer.”
Based on their findings, they could not support any level of alcohol consumption as being “safe.”
Findings such as these serve as a sobering reminder of the impact alcohol can have on our lives. Even people who drink moderately and responsibly can still be at risk for other health conditions that will be exacerbated by their drinking.
Drinking Increases Risk Development
Alcohol-related health problems do not always develop solely from drinking. Conditions such as heart disease and cancer can emerge due to numerous other genetic and lifestyle causes. However, moderate drinking increases the risk of conditions such as these.
In comparing individuals who don’t drink to those who indulge in daily drinking, there is a 0.5 percent higher chance of those in the latter group developing an alcohol-related health problem. Yes, that’s not too drastic, but this risk, as one would expect, increases the more someone drinks:
- People who drink two alcoholic drinks in one day have a 7 percent chance of developing an alcohol-related health problem.
- People who drink five drinks per day on average have a 37 percent increase in risk.
When you start to break down the potential risks for moderate drinkers, there’s hardly a statistical difference in developing health issues between no drinks and very few drinks. However, there is still a risk, which can easily counter the potential benefits someone may hope to gain from moderate drinking.
Daily Drinking: Perceived Benefits vs. Risks
Even if someone does benefit from regular drinking, such as improving the condition of diabetes or increasing antioxidant consumption, alcohol can still simultaneously promote negative results, such as cancer development, as Burton and Sheron’s research found. Drinkers ultimately may come to accept these risks, but they’re not ones that anyone hoping to avoid deadly diseases should take.
The negative health risks exist in tandem with additional risks that alcohol poses in regard to others’ safety and interpersonal relationships. This especially applies to people who drink beyond safe levels and engage in binge drinking on a regular basis.
Heavy Alcohol Consumption and Binge Drinking Levels
While drinking any amount of alcohol can become dangerous, high levels of consumption pose the greatest risk. The precise amount of heavy alcohol consumption can vary depending on a person’s age, body, genetics and other health considerations.
The general standards for at-risk drinking are:
- More than four servings a day, or more than 14 drinks per week for men.
- More than three drinks a day, or more than seven drinks per week for women.
About a quarter of people who regularly exceed these limits have an alcohol use disorder. The remaining three-fourths are at much greater risk of developing both an alcohol use disorder and other alcohol-related health problems.
Unfortunately, this level of alcohol consumption is common, and it puts numerous people at risk. The top 10 percent of alcohol drinkers consumes upwards of 74 alcoholic drinks a week – averaging about 10 drinks per day – according to National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) data.
Potential Impact of Alcohol Use on the Body
Both regular drinking and binge drinking can easily lead to numerous health issues, as Burton and Sheron’s research reaffirmed.
The feeling of being drunk comes from the way that alcohol interacts with the brain, decreasing the functioning of neurotransmitters and impacting emotion regulation, cognition and impulse control. Repeated heavy drinking makes the brain used to drinking, potentially leading to symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when one tries to abstain.
The liver can suffer from inflammation and multiple problems due to heavy drinking, leading to possible problems such as:
- Steatosis (buildup of fat in the organ)
- Fibrosis (thickening or scarring of connective tissue)
- Alcoholic hepatitis
One of the most severe health conditions related to heavy alcohol consumption, cancer is a greater risk the more one drinks. Nearly 3.5 percent of U.S. cancer deaths in 2009 were alcohol related.
Regular heavy drinking can increase the risk of developing one of the following types of cancer:
Despite the reported heart-health benefits of alcohol, even drinking in small amounts can damage the heart, potentially causing:
- High blood pressure
- Arrhythmia (irregular heart beat)
- Cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of heart muscles)
Drinking causes the pancreas to release toxic substances. Heavy and continual drinking then leads to high levels of these substances entering the body. This can cause pancreatitis and prevent proper digestion of food and nutrients.
In addition to other specific health issues, heavy drinking can weaken your immune system, providing diseases with an easier entryway into your body. Binge drinking, for example, can potentially weaken your immune system for 24 hours after the last drink.
What This Research Means
The GBD 2016 and the recent study published in The Lancet have provided many insights into the overall impact of alcohol. Long-term health effects of drinking abound, overriding any previous studies that boast of the miniscule benefits of drinking.
Furthermore, these studies should serve as a reminder that regularly drinking isn’t a bona fide way to improve your health, and those who don’t drink shouldn’t start simply to reap some health benefits. The potential risks are much too great to be worth it. We’re not saying don’t drink at all – just that you should be careful.
If you or a loved one is struggling with excessive drinking, Reflections Recovery Center can craft a plan that leads toward long-term sobriety.