Heavy drinking, even when it is not chronic, can lead to defects in red blood cell production and cause anemia. Thankfully, stopping alcohol use can help.

It is widely known that numerous health problems have been associated with drinking, including those stemming from an allergy or alcohol intolerance. But, can alcohol cause anemia?

Article at a Glance:

  • Drinking too much alcohol can lead to anemia.
  • Anemia is a reduction in the function or number of red blood cells.
  • Alcohol-induced anemia can often be reversed by abstaining from alcohol consumption.

Does Alcohol Cause Anemia?

Anemia is a condition where the body does not make enough red blood cells or does not make properly functioning red blood cells. These cells are needed to carry and deliver oxygen throughout the body. The body constantly turns over red blood cells, so too much red blood cell destruction can also lead to anemia.

There are several ways alcohol can lead to anemia. It can be a short-term or a long-term problem, depending on the cause. While anemia can be observed in the days immediately following heavy drinking, chronic alcohol use is more likely to cause certain types of anemia and result in additional long-term health issues, such as anemia’s association with chronic liver disease.

Alcohol’s Effect on Red Blood Cells

Alcohol has short-term and long-term effects on the body’s red blood cells, including:

  • Bone marrow suppression: Alcohol can impact red blood cell production by decreasing the number of precursor cells in the bone marrow, resulting in fewer mature red blood cells being made.
  • Enlarged red blood cells: Alcohol can also impact red blood cell maturation, causing abnormally shaped or dysfunctional cells. When alcohol leads to enlarged red blood cells, they are likely to be destroyed faster than normal cells and will not function as well as normal red blood cells.
  • Malnutrition: Alcohol may also affect how nutrients are absorbed from food. Alcohol-induced malnutrition tends to lead to folic acid deficiencies, affecting the ability of red blood cells to form normally.
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding: Alcohol can significantly increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. This bleeding can be small but continuous, slowly depleting the number of red blood cells and leading to anemia.

Symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Anemia

Because the human body needs oxygen to function properly and red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout the body, anemia can be a serious condition. If you know you’re anemic, it is important to know the symptoms and speak to a doctor if you start to experience any of them. Your doctor can also check for anemia if you’re showing several symptoms. The symptoms of anemia include:

  • Fatigue
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Pale or yellow  skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Cold hands, feet or other extremities
  • Headaches
  • Reduced mental capacity
  • Reduced physical capacity

Is Anemia from Alcohol Abuse Preventable or Reversible?

Anemia from alcohol abuse is reversible. Most individuals will see an improvement in red blood cell counts after a period of abstinence from alcohol, returning to normal red blood cell formation and function.

If the alcohol-induced anemia was due to a deficiency in folic acid absorption, taking a supplement may help to offset this deficiency. However, the problem is ultimately struggling to absorb the folic acid, so a supplement may only provide limited help. Stopping alcohol use will be the best way to prevent folic acid deficiency anemia.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village can help. To learn more about comprehensive alcohol rehab treatment plans, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative.

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Camille Renzoni
Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
Trisha Sippel
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Trisha Sippel, PhD
Dr. Sippel is a diversely trained scientist with expertise in cancer biology and immunology. Read more
Sources

Ballar, Harold S. “The Hematological Complications of Alcoholism.” Alcohol Health and Research World, 1997. Accessed December 22, 2021.

Eichner, Edward and Hillman, Robert. “The evolution of anemia in alcoholic patients.” The American Journal of Medicine, February 1971. Accessed December 22, 2021.  

Gonzalez-Casas, Rosario; Jones, Anthony E.; Moreno-Otero, Ricardo. “Spectrum of anemia associated with chronic liver disease” World Journal of Gastroenterology, October 7, 2009. Accessed December 22, 2021.

Sanvisens, A., et al. “Folate deficiency in patients seeking treatment of alcohol use disorder.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, November 1, 2017. Accessed December 22, 2021.

Yokoyama, Akira; Brooks, Philip J.; Yokoyama, Tetsuji; Mizukami, Takeshi; Shiba, Shunsuke; Nakamoto, Nobuhiro; Maruyama, Katsuya. “Recovery from anemia and leukocytopenia after abstinence in Japanese alcoholic men and their genetic polymorphisms of alcohol dehydrogenase-1B and aldehyde dehydrogenase-2.” Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology, April 2017. Accessed December 22, 2021.

Gundling, Felix; Harms, Rinna Thulile; & et al. “Self Assessment of Warning Symptoms in Upper Gastrointestinal Bleeding.” Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, February 2008. Accessed December 22, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.