How does drinking affect general health?

Although the impact of drinking does vary between adults, and for some it’s best not to drink at all, there are facts you can keep in mind.

Woman sitting on a sofa at home

When people drink too much, the short-term consequences aren't pleasant

Getting drunk will impair your reaction time and judgement, which can lead to you or someone else getting injured (1, 2). Too much alcohol can also leave you feeling sick in the moment or with a hangover the next day. And if your drinking has been extreme, you could even end up in hospital with alcohol poisoning (3). The best way to avoid these consequences of drinking is to make sure you do not exceed the levels recommended in official drinking guidelines and to avoid drinking altogether if you are driving or engaging in any potentially risky behaviour.

Drinking can be harmful to your health and has different effects on various organs

a. Negative health impact of excessive drinking

Many studies have shown that people who drink heavily on a regular basis are likely to develop various illnesses over time, including liver disease (4, 5), high blood pressure (6, 7), heart disease (8) and some types of cancer (9-11). Research studies have also found an association between light to moderate drinking and the risk of breast cancer for women (11-13).

The impact that drinking alcohol may have on your health involves factors other than the amount you drink – like your family history, genetics and lifestyle. However, there’s no question that drinking excessively will have a negative impact on your health, regardless of these factors. And it can also affect your mental and emotional health, not only your physical wellbeing. If you have questions about how your drinking may be affecting your health, it’s best to consult a health professional for guidance.

b. Impact of drinking on organs

The alcohol you drink will affect your organs, but this effect will be greater on some than on others (2). It also depends on how much you’re drinking, on your health and on how efficiently your body processes alcohol.

The brain is the main target of the alcohol you drink (14). Communication, both within the brain itself and between the brain and the rest of the body, will be affected by alcohol consumption. Drinking too much can slow down your reaction time, affect your coordination and dull your senses, making accidents more likely. Alcohol will also slow down your nervous system and your ability to process information and react, which will make it harder for you to think clearly. And it can affect your judgement, putting you and others around you in dangerous situations.

How much you drink will affect your liver, particularly if you drink excessively (15, 16). It’s responsible for breaking down the alcohol you drink and for processing the toxic substances that are produced. Since it can process roughly one drink every hour, drinking more than this not only means that more alcohol will enter your blood and make you intoxicated, but also that these toxic substances will build up in your liver. Eventually, all of these toxins will be broken down over time and excreted from your body in urine. But, in the meantime, they can cause serious damage to your liver (5, 15, 16 30). People who have been drinking heavily over long periods of time can develop a condition called liver cirrhosis.

Moderate drinking may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in some people (17). But, for others, moderate drinking can be risky. For women, it increases the risk of developing breast cancer (12) and may harm an unborn child for those who are pregnant (18). Moderate drinking is harmful for young people below the legal drinking age (19, 20). If you’re a heavy drinker or if you binge drink, you may be putting the health of your heart at risk and increasing your odds of cardiovascular disease. Regardless of who you are, though, heavy drinking is risky for everyone.

If you’re concerned about how your drinking may affect your overall health or the health of any particular organ in your body, the best approach is to consult a health professional. Together, you can identify your risk level and the best course of action. To help with making informed decisions, health authorities in many countries have developed guidelines around drinking and its impact on health. In order to minimise potential risk, it is always best to keep your drinking within these recommended limits.

Nurse checking blood pressure of female patient

Possible benefits of moderate drinking

Medical studies have found that some people who drink moderately may have reduced risk of some health conditions compared with either people who don’t drink or those who drink heavily. These conditions include heart disease (17, 21) and Type 2 diabetes (22, 23), and improved memory and brain function for some older adults who may be at risk of dementia (24-26). Evidence suggests that these potential benefits apply primarily to middle-aged and older adults. While reduced risk has been reported for both men and women, specific effects may be somewhat different.

Research studies conducted over many years and across many countries have found that people who drink moderately also have lower overall risk of dying from all illnesses and injuries combined (27-29). This average risk is also referred to as “all-cause” mortality. In other words, on average, people who drink lightly or moderately have lower death rates from all possible causes combined that people who either abstain from drinking altogether or are heavier or excessive drinkers. The more people drink, the more risk increases.

This risk relationship is described by a curve that looks like the letter “J” and is often referred to as the “J-curve”. While some recent studies have challenged these findings (30), new research continues to support this relationship (27, 29, 31, 32). However, all of these studies on all-cause mortality, regardless of findings, are observational and have limitations. The science in this area continues to evolve.

It is important to note, however, that the concept of “all-cause mortality” and the reduction in risk is an average across entire populations. The risk of dying, whatever the cause, is different for each individual and depends on many risk factors.

If you don’t currently drink alcohol, you shouldn’t begin to do so for health reasons. Alcohol affects different people differently and risk is not the same for everyone. In order to minimise your risk, it is best to adhere to official guidelines. The UK Chief Medical Officers’ recommendation for men and women is not to exceed 14 units a week (33, 34).

Are you concerned about the effects of drinking on your body?