How Alcohol Affects Your Body
Moderate drinking may help your health but heavy boozing only hurts it. Here are the pluses and minuses of how alcohol affects your body.
BREASTS As little as one alcoholic drink a day can increase the risk of breast cancer, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Researchers believe alcohol boosts risk of breast cancer by increasing estrogen levels, a known risk factor for breast cancer. Other theories: alcohol reduces the liver’s ability to clear cell-damaging toxins and depletes the body of cancer-protective antioxidants, such as folate and vitamin C.
STOMACH Alcohol causes stomach cells to produce excessive amounts of gastric acid, which can irritate the stomach.
PANCREAS Heavy alcohol use is the most common cause of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas and a major risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
LIVER Drinking excessively causes the liver to accumulate fat (fatty liver) and become inflamed (hepatitis). It also leads to cirrhosis, a condition in which liver cells are so damaged they can’t regenerate, and liver failure. Take note: having as few as 3 drinks at once can cause liver damage if mixed with certain medications—including acetaminophen and statin drugs used to treat high cholesterol. If you take any prescription or over-the-counter drugs, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether it’s safe to consume alcohol.
BRAIN Moderate alcohol consumption may ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As we age, brain cells die, leading to gaps that slow nerve transmission within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. Moderate drinking appears to somehow prevent these “potholes.” (Scientists aren’t sure why.)
In high doses, alcohol kills brain cells, leading to brain damage that may manifest itself as permanent memory loss. Heavy drinking may even change the brain in ways that contribute to strained personal relationships. In a study in the November 2009 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, alcoholics registered decreased activity in parts of the brain responsible for recognizing people’s facial emotions, which may contribute to miscommunication and conflict, say researchers.
HEART Drinking in moderation may protect the heart by raising “good” HDL cholesterol, decreasing inflammation and “thinning the blood” (preventing clots that can cause heart attack and stroke). Moderate drinking also increases estrogen, which protects the heart—a benefit particularly helpful to postmenopausal women whose reduced estrogen levels increase their risk of heart disease.
BLOOD PRESSURE Drinking even in moderate amounts (particularly on an empty stomach) has been linked to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
BONES Moderate alcohol consumption may boost bone density and reduce risk of bone fractures, possibly by raising levels of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, which help to keep bones strong. Wine and beer may be more beneficial than liquor because they contain compounds (e.g., resveratrol in wine and silicon, a trace mineral, in beer) that may also contribute to bone density, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Excessive alcohol intake may increase risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures by accelerating the rate of bone deterioration. Alcohol, a diuretic, also flushes calcium—a mineral essential for strong, dense bones—from the body.