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7 Surprising Ways Alcohol Can Affect the Body

Ian Landau

A person reclined on an exercise mat, raising up to complete a crunch.

Jan 13, 2022

In This Article

Many people know that alcohol affects the liver, and that prolonged heavy drinking can cause liver damage.

But drinking too much on a regular basis has damaging effects on the body well beyond the liver. Here are some lesser-known problems alcohol can cause.

Alcohol Interferes with Metabolism

Unlike carbohydrates and fat, alcohol cannot be stored in the body. So, the body makes metabolizing alcohol a priority (1).

A small amount of the alcohol you consume (5% to 10%) is excreted directly through your breath or in your urine, but most of it must be broken down by the liver. 

This not only puts extra strain on the liver, it impedes metabolism and absorption of nutrients from the other drinks and foods you consume. 

In fact, long-term heavy drinking can lead to malnutrition because of this interference with metabolism.

Alcohol Causes Imbalances in Gut Bacteria

Gut health is important not only to  digestion, but also to your overall health and well-being.

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to overgrowth of harmful gut bacteria and not enough good gut bacteria. This in turn can cause cracks and holes in the intestinal walls (a condition called leaky gut) (2).

Harmful bacteria and toxins can then pass into the bloodstream through the damaged intestines, causing widespread inflammation and elevating your risk of several chronic diseases.

Alcohol Damages Bones

Chronic and heavy alcohol use contributes to low bone density and interferes with bone formation. It increases the likelihood of fractures and slows the body’s ability to heal.

Part of the reason alcohol is damaging to bones is because it upsets the balance of calcium in the body and interferes with vitamin D production, both of which are key elements of bone health (3). 

Chronic heavy drinking may also lead to higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that contributes to decreased bone formation and increased bone breakdown.

Alcohol Negatively Affects the Heart

While we often see news stories about how alcohol is good for your heart, the bigger picture is more complicated (4). It’s true that light to moderate drinking can lower your blood pressure and may raise “good” HDL cholesterol.

But heavier drinking over time stiffens blood vessels, which raises blood pressure. In addition, heavy drinking is known to raise your risk of heart failure, stroke, and heart rhythm problems like atrial fibrillation (AFib) (5).

Alcohol Disrupts the Immune System

Drinking too much alcohol over a long period can suppress and weaken the immune system, leaving you at greater risk of bacterial and viral infections (6). Part of the problem, as mentioned above, is that alcohol damages gut bacteria, which play a critical role in immune function.

Alcohol may also damage immune cells in the intestines that fight bacteria and viruses. This can leave you more susceptible to not only colds and flu, but also to more serious conditions like pneumonia and other severe respiratory illnesses (7).

Alcohol Harms the Skin

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes the body to lose fluids, which leads to dehydration. And the skin is particularly affected by dehydration.

Over time, chronic dehydration can lead to wrinkles and lines on the face, which is why heavy drinking can lead to premature aging (8). Alcohol also dilates the pores of the skin, which can cause blackheads and whiteheads. It also causes inflammation, which can leave the face red and blotchy.

Alcohol Raises Cancer Risk

Alcohol is listed as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (9). The more you drink, the greater your risk of developing cancer. Research has found even moderate drinking can raise this risk.  

Types of cancer especially associated with alcohol include (10): 

  • Head and neck cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer

About The Author

Ian Landau is a journalist who's written extensively about health and wellness since 2010. He is also the author of The Hypochondriac's Handbook (Skyhorse, 2010).

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