There are dozens of health-related issues due to heavy drinking. Recognizing the major health conditions associated with high consumption of alcohol can help you or a loved one make informed choices about your health.

Alcohol abuse is linked to many risks, including car accidents and legal problems. However, major health problems can also result from long-term heavy drinking. Knowing some of the health issues that are associated with long-term drinking can help you make healthier decisions.

1. Increased Cancer Risk

Studies have found a link between heavy drinking and increased risks of cancer. Many different kinds of cancer are associated with drinking, including cancers of the:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Throat
  • Larynx, or voice box
  • Liver
  • Breast
  • Colon
  • Rectum

Doctors are still learning more about the different reasons that drinking may predispose people to cancer. Some known factors include:

  • Acetaldehyde: This chemical is a breakdown product of alcohol. Although it lasts only briefly in the body in most people, it is known to be a cancer-causing agent.
  • Reactive oxygen species: Heavy drinking causes liver enzymes like CYP2E1 to work overtime. Unstable chemicals like reactive oxygen species can result, harming cells and making the body more susceptible to cancer.
  • Lower Vitamin A levels: Vitamin A and related nutrients, called retinoids, may help protect the body from cancer. However, heavy drinking can lead to lower Vitamin A levels. As a result, cancer risks may increase.
  • Genetics: Many different gene variations have been linked to increased cancer risks in people who drink heavily.
  • Estrogen: Alcohol has been linked to higher estrogen levels in women who drink. Drinking has also been linked to estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer.

2. Cardiovascular Disease

Drinking can contribute to many different cardiovascular, or CV, problems. In general, the more heavily a person drinks, the more at risk they are for CV issues. Doctors are still learning about the reasons that drinking is linked to CV conditions like:

  • Hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Peripheral arterial disease
  • Cardiomyopathy, or enlarged heart

Related Topic: Alcoholic cardiomyopathy treatment

3. Cirrhosis of the Liver

Alcoholic liver disease is a spectrum of liver problems linked to drinking. The liver is responsible for processing the alcohol in the body and is, therefore, at risk for damage from drinking. After years of heavy drinking, permanent liver scarring can occur, a condition called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can be life-threatening and is linked to other deadly complications like liver cancer and bleeding problems.

4. Dementia and Declining Mental Function

Doctors have found a link between long-term drinking and cognitive problems as people get older. However, they are not sure why this occurs. One type of dementia, Korsakoff Syndrome, is known to be directly linked to drinking. This type of dementia is permanent and is caused by low thiamine, or Vitamin B1, levels from chronic drinking.

5. Depression

Although moderate drinking is not linked to depression, heavy drinking is known to be a risk factor for depression and suicide. In fact, people who struggle with drinking have a suicide rate about 10 times higher than others.

6. Aggravates Existing Gout Condition

Gout, a painful inflammatory condition, can flare up when triggered by certain food or drink. Drinking is known to be one of the main triggers for a gout flare. After drinking, the kidneys prioritize ridding the body of alcohol instead of other substances like uric acid. In turn, uric acid buildup leads to a gout flare. For this reason, even modest amounts of alcohol may cause a gout flare. Avoiding drinking may result in fewer gout flare-ups.

7. Seizures

Chronic drinking can raise the risk of brain problems like seizure in several ways. First, excessive drinking can cause alcohol poisoning, resulting in seizures from dehydration and abnormal blood chemical levels. Further, alcohol withdrawal can also lead to seizures because of rapid changes in brain chemicals during the withdrawal process.

Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing a life-threatening situation, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.

8. High-Blood Pressure

Although low-to-moderate drinking is not linked with high blood pressure, heavy drinking may cause the condition. Doctors are still investigating the mechanisms by which drinking can lead to high blood pressure.

Related Topic: Does alcohol lower blood pressure

9. Nerve Damage

Heavy drinking can cause nerve damage in a couple of different ways. Alcohol itself can directly damage nerves. Further, people who drink heavily often have nutritional deficiencies like low Vitamin B12 levels, which can lead to permanent nerve damage. Nerve damage can happen differently depending on the person. In some people it might cause numbness, pain or a pins-and-needles feeling. In others, it may cause constipation, erectile dysfunction or muscle problems.

10. Anemia

Besides causing bleeding disorders from cirrhosis, drinking is also linked to anemia. Every second, millions of blood cells are produced in the body. However, drinking suppresses this process. In turn, conditions like anemia, low white blood cells and low platelet counts can result.

The Recovery Village 2020 Alcohol Survey Results

We surveyed 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not). A subset of the study’s respondents (47.1%) qualified as heavy alcohol users.

Related Topic: What happens when you drink alcohol everyday

When we asked survey participants about health complications directly related to their alcohol use:

  • 1 in 3 reported depression (38%)
  • 1 in 3 reported high blood pressure (31%)
  • 1 in 6 reported liver disease (17%)
  • 1 in 10 reported cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) (12%)
  • 1 in 10 reported cardiovascular disease (11%)
  • 1 in 7 reported a weakened immune system (15%)
  • 1 in 10 reported nerve damage (11%)
  • 1 in 12 reported pancreatitis (8.4%)
  • 1 in 11 reported seizures (9%)
  • 1 in 13 reported cancer (7.8%)

Consistently, respondents who qualified as heavy alcohol users reported every health complication more often than average and significantly more than other alcohol users. Compared to people who didn’t drink heavily, heavy drinkers in our study had more than doubled their risk for certain health issues. They were:

  • 2.12 times more likely to have liver disease
  • 2.26 times more likely to have cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
  • 2.06 times more likely to have high blood pressure
  • 2.26 times more likely to have cardiovascular disease
  • 2.77 times more likely to have nerve damage
  • 2.18 times more likely to have pancreatitis

They were also at higher risk for other common health complications compared to other moderate or light drinkers. Heavy drinkers were:

  • 85% more likely to be depressed
  • 61% more likely to have a weakened immune system
  • 73% more likely to have seizures
  • 48% more likely to have cancer

In addition, avoiding all of these complications was harder the more you drank: heavy drinkers were 71% less likely to have none of these illnesses compared to other people in the study.

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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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.