Drinking alcohol is a part of celebrating, relaxing, and unwinding for many people, but it is easy to overdo. Excessive and long-term intakes are known to increase the risks for regrettable mistakes, accidents, injuries, worsened depression, liver disease, brain damage, high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, cancers, and death. However, even moderate and short-term intakes have potentially harmful effects on health. In this blog post, I address three effects of alcohol you may not know about. (Note: This post was updated February 25, 2021.)
1. Even Moderate Intake Increases Risk for Certain Diseases and Short-Term Intake — Heart & Liver Abnormalities
Increased Risk for Certain Diseases
Modest alcohol intake can still increase the risk for certain cancers including breast, oral, throat, esophageal, gastric, and colorectal cancers. In the U.S., moderate drinking is less than or equal to 2 drinks per day for men and less than or equal to 1 drink per day for women. Women tend to have less of the enzyme needed to metabolize alcohol and less lean body mass to dilute it. One drink is any 1 of the following:
- 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (for example, 80 proof brandy, gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey)
- 8 fluid ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol)
- 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
- 12 fluid ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
One might argue that some types of alcoholic drinks contain nutrients and plant chemicals that decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Even so, whole foods, such as the fruits and grains used to make the drinks, provide nutrients, plant chemicals, and more without the alcohol. Research studies have linked moderate alcohol intake to decreased risk for some diseases, but they have been largely observational and cannot confirm a causal relationship. Starting to drink alcohol, or increasing intake of alcohol, for these proposed benefits is not recommended.
Heart & Liver Abnormalities
Binge drinking or consuming several alcoholic drinks over a short time can result in an alarming, irregular heart rate. Fat can build up in the liver after just one night of heavy drinking. Fatty liver is the first stage of liver disease.
Some groups of people should not drink alcohol at all. These include those, who:
- are or may be pregnant
- are not of legal drinking age
- plan to do activities that require focus and concentration, such as driving, riding a bike, or operating a vehicle
- have a certain health condition or take medications that interact with alcohol
- cannot limit their intake to a moderate amount or are recovering from alcoholism
If you are struggling to control your alcohol intake, please seek professional help.
2. Alcohol Suppresses the Immune System
Alcohol stimulates the stomach to release more histamine, which promotes inflammation. Byproducts of alcohol metabolism bind to cell structures and alter their function, and enhance oxidative stress.
Alcohol usually reduces appetite and intake of nutrient-rich foods. It also decreases intestinal absorption of folic acid and vitamin B12, decreases liver metabolism of vitamins A and D, and increases urinary excretion of zinc. Folic acid and vitamin B12 help make new immune cells. Vitamins A and D and zinc help produce antibodies and with the immune response. Vitamins A and D influence immune cells to multiply and differentiate. Vitamin A helps maintain tissues, which act as barricades to microbes that could invade and infect the body.
3. Alcohol Affects Hydration & Nutritional Status
Alcohol can decrease the body’s supply of water, minerals, and vitamins and increase body weight and body fat composition.
Hydration & Nutrients
In addition to decreasing folic acid, vitamins B12, A, and D, and zinc, alcohol increases urinary excretion of water, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which impacts the body’s fluid balance. Alcohol also decreases intestinal absorption of thiamin, which like other B vitamins, is a part of enzymes and supports metabolism. Magnesium is needed for vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and thiamin metabolism. Calcium and potassium are essential for nerve impulse and muscle contraction — processes necessary for physical activity.
Body Weight & Body Fat
Alcohol provides 7 kilocalories per gram compared to energy-yielding nutrients: 9 kilocalories per gram of fat, 4 kilocalories per gram of carbohydrate, and 4 kilocalories per gram of protein. To clarify, alcohol is not a nutrient, which is a component of the diet needed by the body to function properly. Drinking is generally easier than eating, so it’s easier to consume more calories from calorie-containing beverages than from food. Mixed drinks contain other high-calorie ingredients in them, such as cream, juice, soda, and syrup. While intoxicated, one can consume a significant amount of calories from both calorie-containing beverages and food without being aware. Regular counting of every single calorie consumed (or to be consumed) is not recommended, but one can recognize alcoholic drinks as some of the highest calorie-containing items with the lowest amount of nutrients in the diet.
Since alcohol is toxic, the body prioritizes its metabolism of alcohol over that of fat. In other words, alcohol spares fat and promotes fat storage and higher body fat composition.
For much less risky alternatives, see these non-alcoholic drink suggestions. Better yet, enjoy spa water (water lightly flavored with fresh fruit and herbs).
Did you know that even moderate and short-term alcohol intakes can increase the risk for certain diseases and heart and liver abnormalities, suppress the immune system, and affect hydration and nutritional status? Do you have any other ideas for alcohol-free beverages? Comment below and let others know by sharing.
Sizer, Frances Sienkiewicz and Whitney, Eleanor Noss. Nutrition Concepts and Controversies, Fourteenth Edition, Boston, Cengage Learning, 2017.