By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 7 October 2012)
Health and Safety Problems Caused by Alcohol
Drinking has the following impacts on health and safety (most of these risks are associated with heavy drinking rather than moderate drinking):
- Accidents: Motor skill impairment caused by alcohol consumption makes people accident prone, and injuries tend to be more severe. Approximately half of all fatal car crashes in the United States result from drunk driving, which claims 16,000 lives in the USA each year. Potential crash risk increases by approximately 5 times at an alcohol level of 0.05 (about two standard drinks, though this will vary with size, gender and other factors), 25 times at an alcohol level of 0.08, and 80 times at a level of 0.15. In addition to car accidents, alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of suffering injuries from cycling, walking, sports, recreation, fire and violence. The risk of injury is substantially higher for women than men.
- Cancer: Alcohol consumption increases the risk for developing certain cancers, particularly of the gastrointestinal tract, pharynx, larynx, lips, mouth, esophagus, breast, and liver. Among those consuming two or more drinks each day, taking a folic acid supplement (at leat 600 micrograms per day) may reduce breast cancer risk by 20% to 25%. Additionally, drinking alcohol with meals rather than on its own may decrease the likelihood of developing mouth, throat, and digestive system cancers as a result of drinking.
- Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis of the liver, one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, is a direct result of heavy drinking.
- Digestive disturbances: Drinkers are more likely to suffer from heartburn and other digestive problems.
- Heart disease: Drinking heavily or binge drinking (even if not drinking at all between binges) increases the likelihood of suffering heart attacks. In those who already have cardiovascular disease, sudden death is more likely among drinkers.
- Hemorrhagic stroke: Heavy drinkers (including younger adults) increase their risk of hemorrhagic stroke by 80%.
- High blood pressure: Having three or more drinks a day creates a substantial risk for high blood pressure and can exacerbate an existing condition.
- Immune system suppression: Chronic or acute alcohol exposure suppresses immune function. As a result, regular drinkers are more inclined to become ill or suffer infections and tend to recover more slowly as well. Those who have consumed alcohol before sustaining a traumatic injury are 6 times more likely to die than individuals who did not drink prior to sustaining similar injuries.
- Neurological disorders: In addition to alcohol-related dementia, heavy drinkers often develop the neurological disorder Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which leads to cognitive impairment and memory loss.
- Obesity: Heavy drinkers are more likely to become obese due to alcohol’s high sugar content, leading to chronic health problems such as diabetes.
- Osteoporosis: Drinkers are more likely to suffer bone loss as they grow older.
- Pancreatitis: Those who consume alcohol have an increased risk for developing chronic pancreatitis.
- Performance deficits: Alcohol adversely affects attention span, vigilance, coordination, cognitive function, and reaction time.
- Poor judgment, impulsivity, and lack of vigilance: Drinkers are more inclined to suffer relationship damage, legal troubles, job loss, accidents, and violent attacks than nondrinkers. One in every four cases of violent crime results from alcohol use, and alcohol also increases the risk for suicide.
- Pregnancy problems: Drinkers suffer increased risk of miscarriage and their babies may suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome and other developmental abnormalities.
- Sleep disruption: Alcohol consumption can cause sleep disturbances such as insomnia.
Health Risk Factors
Alcohol is riskier for some people than others. The following risk factors make drinking more dangerous:
- Taking medication: Those taking certain medications, including but not limited to certain antibiotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antihistamines, pain relievers, sleeping pills/sedatives, beta blockers, and anticoagulants, should not drink due to adverse interactions. These interactions range from rendering the medication ineffective to causing death.
- Old age: Age-related changes cause older people to process alcohol more slowly, so they should not have more than one drink per day.
- Certain health conditions: Those with health conditions such as pancreatic disease; high blood pressure; heart arrhythmias; precancerous symptoms of the esophagus, larynx, pharynx, or mouth; liver disease; stomach ulcers; severe acid reflux disorder; sleep apnea; or history of hemorrhagic strokes should not drink.
- Pregnancy: Pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether. The fetus is most susceptible to alcohol damage during the first few weeks after conception, before most women know that they have conceived, so those who are attempting to get pregnant should also avoid alcohol. Alcohol can generate severe congenital abnormalities in the fetus, including fetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterized by physical abnormalities, neurological dysfunction, developmental delay and growth retardation. A recent meta-analysis indicates that the risk for fetal malformation is quite serious even with fewer than three drinks per day.
- Tendency toward addiction: According to twin, family, and adoption studies, both our alcohol preferences and our vulnerability to developing alcoholism are partially determined by genetic factors, so those with a family history of alcoholism should be particularly careful. One of the first signs of dependence is being unable to stop drinking after consuming a moderate amount.
Recommended Drink Limits
Alcohol can be either a health booster or a health buster, depending on the dose ingested and the vulnerabilities and health requirements of the person drinking it. Assuming that you don’t suffer from any of the conditions listed above or take any medications, moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits. However, these can be just as easily obtained through exercise and good nutrition.
If you do choose to drink, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (10 May 2012) recommends drinking moderately, which means limiting intake to one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men (this means one or two drinks per day each day – not seven to fourteen drinks consumed over the course of one or two days each week, which is unhealthy binge drinking).
One standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits (80 proof – rum, gin, vodka, whiskey, etc.). This translates to approximately one standard-sized can or bottle of beer, a little over half a measuring cup of wine, or one average-sized shot of spirits.
Heavy drinking, which can lead to serious health problems, is more than two drinks per day for women and more than four for men.
The Health Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Researchers first began studying the potential health benefits of alcohol consumption as a result of the “French paradox”. It was found that despite a relatively rich diet and drinking wine with meals, the French have a lower incidence of heart disease. This led researchers to investigate the possible link between moderate alcohol consumption and health.
Although some studies suggest that red wine offers additional health-protective effects due to its high antioxidant content, the benefits listed below can be obtained by drinking any type of alcohol in moderation:
- Dementia: A French study found that people who drank daily in moderation were less likely to develop dementia than nondrinkers and those who only had one drink each week.
- Gallstones: Some studies have suggested that those who drink moderately cut their risk of developing gallstones by about 50%.
- Heart health: Moderate drinking reduces the risk of both heart disease and death by heart attack; studies have found variable risk reduction rates, ranging from 25% (various studies) to 40% (Nurses’ Health Study-a longitudinal study of 85,709 nurses).
- Ischemic stroke: Moderate drinkers have a 70% reduced risk for ischemic strokes, a leading cause of disability and death. However, heavy drinking increases the risk of suffering ischemic strokes.
- Type 2 diabetes: There are some indications that moderate drinking may reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes; however, consuming large quantities of alcohol actually increases the risk for this condition.
- Vascular benefits: Numerous studies suggest a 25% to 40% risk reduction for peripheral vascular disease in moderate drinkers.
- General health: A national (U.S.) study found that moderate drinkers are more likely to get enough sleep each night, exercise regularly, and be at a healthy weight than nondrinkers and heavy drinkers.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to represent medical advice. You should speak to your doctor if you have any health concerns, existing medical conditions, or are currently taking any medications to make sure that alcohol will not exacerbate any existing problems.
- BBC News. (24 February 2009). “Drink a Day Raises Cancer Risk.” BBC.co.uk.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (10 May 2012). “Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions.” CDC.gov.
- Harvard School of Public Health. (2007). “Alcohol.” hsph.harvard.edu.
- Kovacs, Elizabeth, J., Ph.D., Messingham, Kelly A.N., Ph.D. (2002). “Influence of alcohol and gender on immune response.” Alcohol Research & Health, Winter, 2002.
- MayoClinic.com. (2008). “Alcohol and your health: Weighing the pros and cons.”
- Morefocus group Inc. “Red Wine and Health, Red Wine in Moderation Can Have a Positive Effect on Health.” Morefocus.com.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia). (2001). Australian Alcohol Guidelines: Health Risks and Benefits.