Drinking too much — on a single occasion or over time — can take a serious toll on your health. This article explores the negative health consequences of chronic alcohol use, as cumulative effects add up over time.

Effects on the brain

Because of the complexity of the nervous system, a separate article has been devoted to the effects of long-term alcohol use on the brain: How does chronic drinking affect the brain?

Effects on the liver

The liver is an organ which helps break down and remove harmful substances from the body, including alcohol. Long-term alcohol use interferes with this process. Over time, heavy drinking makes the organ fatty and lets thick fibrous tissue build up. This limits blood flow, so liver cells don’t get what they need to survive. As they die off, the liver develops scar tissue and stops working well. As the liver becomes increasingly damaged, it has a harder time removing toxic substances from the body. This leads to a dangerous build up of toxins and cellular waste products in the body, which can be life-threatening. Liver problems associated with chronic drinking include fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.

Effects on the pancreas

Drinking too much alcohol can cause abnormal activation of digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas. Buildup of these enzymes can lead to inflammation known as pancreatitis. After years of chronic drinking, insulin production can be affected, which can lead to diabetes. Pancreatic cancer also becomes more likely.

Effects on the digestive system

Drinking can damage the tissues in the digestive tract and prevent the intestines from digesting food and properly absorbing nutrients and vitamins. As a result, malnutrition may occur. Difficulty absorbing vitamins and minerals from food can also cause anemia (a condition characterized by low red blood cell count and resulting fatigue).

When alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, stomach acid production increases. Alcohol also relaxes the muscle that keeps acid out of the esophagus. Together, this can result in problems with acid reflux, heartburn, and ulcers. It can also cause appetite suppression, which is another reason why long-term drinkers often don’t get all of the nutrients they need.

Effects on the heart and circulatory system

Regular drinkers have a higher risk of cardiovascular issues than people who do not drink. Complications can include irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, difficulty pumping blood through the body, stroke, heart attack, heart disease, and heart failure.

Effects on the immune system

Drinking too much can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and disease. Chronic drinkers are more likely to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink excessively.

Effects on the musculoskeletal system

Alcohol limits blood flow to the muscles and interferes with the normal creation of muscle protein. Over time, this leads to decreases in muscle mass and strength.

Regular drinking can also result in osteoporosis (thinner bones), increased risk of fractures, and slower healing of breaks.

Effects on sexual functioning

Men who drink too much are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction. Heavy drinking can also interfere with normal male hormone production and lead to lower libido.

Women who drink too much may stop menstruating, which puts them at a greater risk for infertility issues.

Effects on normal cell growth

There is strong scientific evidence of an association between chronic drinking and several types of cancer. Research indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks over time, the higher their risk of cancer. A separate article has been created to cover this topic in more detail: Associations between chronic drinking and cancer

Effects on longevity

Studies have shown that people who consume 10 or more drinks per week have shorter life expectancies compared to individuals who drink less frequently.

References

NIH: Alcohol's Effects on the Body

NIH: Alcohol's Damaging Effects on the Brain

Healthline: The Effects of Alcohol on the Body

National Cancer Institute: Alcohol and Cancer Risk