Alcohol Consumption and the Health Risks
There is sometimes conflicting information available when it comes to drinking alcohol. For example, some studies have shown that drinking one or two glasses of red wine per day is good for cardiovascular health. It is widely known, however, that alcohol consumption, even in moderation (which is usually defined as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men), can cause some health risks for some people. Alcohol consumption in amounts larger than that can cause a variety of conditions that affect both physical and mental health. Here are some of the health risks associated with alcohol use.
Alcoholism is linked to depression in two ways. First, those who consume alcohol are more prone to developing depression than those who do not. Secondly, those who have depression are more likely to develop an addiction than those who do not. Many with depression self-medicate by drinking alcohol, and as they drink alcohol, they feel more depressed. This creates a cycle that can lead to an addiction and can also cause the individual to move on to using and abusing other substances in an effort to feel better, creating additional addictions. In fact, people who are treated for substance abuse, including alcoholism, often need treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions at the same time.
Perhaps the most well-known effect of drinking alcohol is liver disease, liver cancer, and hepatitis. The liver is the organ responsible for processing alcohol, and too much alcohol can cause enlargement of the liver, increased liver enzymes, anemia, abdominal pain, and other symptoms of liver disease. The good news is that if the condition is caught early, abstinence and nutritional support can allow the liver to heal and reverse some of the damage. If the individual keeps drinking, cirrhosis can result, leading to an early death.
Using alcohol can increase your risk of developing some cancers. The American Cancer Society explains that using alcohol can raise your risk of getting cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon. The more you drink, the higher your risk is of developing one or more of these cancers. Alcohol damages body tissues and leads to inflammation and scarring; these changes are what can make you more prone to developing cancer. In some cases, abstinence can reverse the changes that could make you more likely to develop cancer.
Stomach Ulcers, GERD, and Gastritis
Alcohol damages the lining of the stomach and esophagus, which can cause inflammation and excess acid production. You might first feel the excess acid as heartburn or taste it in your throat as reflux. As it gets worse, it can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastritis, and/or stomach ulcers. These cause pain and can make you more likely to develop esophageal or stomach cancer. Many people use antacids to reduce their symptoms, but if you continue to drink, you won’t be reducing your risk of the scarring that can cause pain and even cancer. A treatment plan that includes abstinence from alcohol can help reverse the damage caused by the excessive acid production.
Lowered Immune System
Your immune system is a fragile and complicated system, that can be weakened by alcohol consumption. Part of the reason has to do with the mucosal structures in your intestines, which are partially responsible for keeping your immune system in check. Those with alcoholism also tend to have lower white blood cell counts; these are responsible for keeping your body healthy and fighting off illnesses. Individuals who drink alcohol are more prone to developing influenza, pneumonia, and other potentially serious illnesses. They are also more likely to get serious forms of these illnesses, leading to hospitalization and an increased risk of death.
Heart Attack and Stroke
People who drink alcohol tend to have higher blood pressures, more arrhythmias, and poorer elasticity in their blood vessels than those who do not drink. This raises your risk of developing heart disease or of having a heart attack or a stroke. People with heart conditions such as cardiomyopathy or a previous heart attack are advised not to drink alcohol since it raises their risk of a heart event. Those who drink are more prone to developing these types of heart conditions. If you stop drinking and follow the recommended treatments, you might be able to lower your blood pressure and control arrhythmias.
Dementia and Brain Damage
While dementia is often considered part of the aging process, those who drink alcohol are more prone to suffering from brain damage that can cause dementia. This can occur at any age and is not limited to the typical ages for dementia, which are later in the senior years. When alcoholism is combined with a poor diet (as is often the case for those who are addicted to the substance), individuals can develop a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome was formerly known as alcoholic dementia and can cause confusion, memory loss, hallucinations, and other disturbances.
People who drink too much alcohol often find that they are not getting nor absorbing enough of the nutrients that their bodies need to stay healthy. A lack of proper nourishment can lead to weight problems (either obesity or weight loss), hair loss, dry skin, a lack of energy, and, in severe cases, organ failure. A poor diet combined with excessive alcohol consumption contributes to the risks of cancer, dementia, heart disease, and other health problems that have been listed above. Abstaining from alcohol and working with a nutritionist can allow you to regain your strength and reverse the malnutrition.
If you are concerned about the health effects of drinking and you find that you are unable to cut down on or stop drinking on your own, your doctor can help. You can take an online screening test for alcoholism at home. Talk to your primary care physician about getting a referral to an addictions specialist, who can work with you to develop a recovery plan and get your health back on track.