Why Alcohol Use is a Risk Factor for Chronic Conditions

Amy Barczy

| 5 min read

Amy Barczy is a former brand journalist who authored...

To your body, the alcohol in a glass of wine or in a beer is toxic.
While your body can process alcohol and break it down, it can only do so in small amounts at a time – leaving the extra alcohol to circulate throughout your body. Drinking excessively can cause your body to respond in ways that can affect your health much longer than you may realize.
Excessive alcohol use is considered a risk factor for many chronic conditions – diseases that can permanently affect your health. Yet the threshold for “excessive alcohol use” is lower than you might think – and does not mean that you are dependent on alcohol. Nearly 90% of people who drink excessively don’t meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, which previously was known as alcoholism. 

What is excessive alcohol use?

Excessive alcohol use is considered both binge drinking – in which you consume many drinks in one occasion – and heavy drinking, in which you consume multiple drinks per week. For example, if a woman has two drinks each night for four nights in a week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider that heavy drinking.
Here are the definitions of excessive drinking from the CDC:
Binge drinking:
  • For women, consuming four or more drinks at one time
  • For men, consuming five or more drinks at one time
Heavy drinking:
  • For women, consuming eight or more drinks per week
  • For men, consuming 15 or more drinks per week
The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the CDC advises adults not drink, or drink in moderation with two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less a day for women.
It's also important to know how much alcohol your drink contains. In the U.S., one "standard" drink (or one alcoholic drink equivalent) contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:
  • 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol

Chronic conditions linked to alcohol use

According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use can lead to chronic conditions:
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Cancers including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon and rectum 
  • Dementia
  • Depression and anxiety
There are also other long-term impacts of excessive drinking: learning and memory problems, social problems including unemployment and family issues, and alcohol use disorders or alcohol dependence.

How excessive alcohol use puts the body at risk

Drinking alcohol excessively can cause the body to react in ways long after a hangover has dissipated.

The liver

The liver handles the heavy load of breaking down toxins in the body – which includes alcohol. But over time, if you drink excessively, the liver will begin to change: it will build up more fatty deposits, and the liver tissue will become thicker and more fibrous. As a result, it’s harder for blood to flow to the liver; resulting in dead cells. Eventually, these dead cells can make scars on the liver and cause the organ to stop working as it should. 

The heart

Just one drink causes a sharp rise in blood pressure that can take at least two hours to subside. The ongoing use of alcohol has a sustained effect, which increases the risk of heart disease. The ongoing use of alcohol has a sustained effect, which increases the risk of heart disease. 
The toxicity of alcohol can also damage the heart. Damage to the heart can weaken the muscle, making it more difficult for it to pump out blood. The heart muscle then begins to expand to hold the blood that it can’t pump out. Over time, the muscle becomes thinner, enlarged and at risk of not functioning properly. This is called cardiomyopathy. The heart can also develop an irregular beat.

The pancreas

Drinking too much alcohol can also affect the pancreas and can cause it to produce toxic substances in the body. Eventually, this can cause the pancreas to become inflamed and swollen – preventing proper digestion. This is called pancreatitis and can be dangerous.

The immune system

Research has found that alcohol can suppress and weaken the immune system. It can disrupt pathways limiting the body’s ability to fight diseases and inflammation. This makes a person susceptible to a host of chronic conditions and infections.
Additionally, alcohol can disrupt your sleep patterns throughout the night. Moderate to heavy drinking can cause obstructive sleep apnea – even in people who don’t have the condition. Disrupted sleep can also further weaken your immune system.

Talk to your doctor 

Discuss your drinking habits with your doctor during your annual physical. Your doctor will be able to help you understand any changes you may need to make to stay healthy. Additionally, if you’re concerned about how your alcohol use interferes with your everyday life, your doctor can connect you to resources for recovery and to stay sober.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network can help members find an in-network mental health professional by calling behavioral health access lines listed below:
PPO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-762-2382
  • A free and confidential resource that’s just a call away when you need immediate support. Behavioral health professionals answer, 24/7.
HMO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-482-5982
  • Connect with a behavioral health clinician if you need help finding a mental health or substance use provider.
  • Behavioral health clinicians are available for routine assistance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For urgent concerns after hours, clinicians are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Learn more about mental health and options you have as a member to seek help at bcbsm.com/mentalhealth.
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