The long term effects of alcohol range from possible health benefits for low levels of alcohol consumption to severe detrimental effects in cases of chronic alcohol abuse. High levels of alcohol consumption are correlated with an increased risk of developing alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, malabsorption, chronic pancreatitis, alcoholic liver disease, and cancer. Damage to the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system can occur from sustained alcohol consumption. Long-term use of alcohol in excessive quantities is capable of damaging nearly every organ and system in the body. The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol.
Historically doctors have promoted alcohol for its perceived health benefits and most recently for protection against coronary heart disease. There is evidence of cardiovascular benefits from drinking 1 - 2 drinks per day; however, the health benefits from moderate intake of alcohol are controversial. Concerns have been raised that, similarly to the pharmaceutical industry, the alcohol industry has been involved in exaggerating the health benefits of alcohol. Alcohol should be regarded as a recreational drug with potentially serious adverse effects on health and it is not recommended for cardio-protection in the place of safer and proven traditional methods such as a balanced diet, exercise and pharmacotherapy.
Some experts argue that the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption may be outweighed by other increased risks, including those of injuries, violence, fetal damage, certain forms of cancer, liver disease and hypertension. As the apparent health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are limited for populations at low risk of heart disease, other experts urge caution because of the possibility that recommending moderate alcohol consumption may lead to an increased risk of alcohol abuse, particularly among the young. The benefits of moderate alcohol consumption may be outweighed by the risks of moderate alcohol consumption.
- 1 Scientific studies
- 2 Alcohol-related deaths
- 3 Cardiovascular system
- 4 Nervous system
- 5 Digestive system and weight gain
- 6 Other systems
- 7 Immune system, bacterial contamination, viral infections, and cancer
- 8 Alcohol's effect on the fetus
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
The adverse effects of long-term excessive use of alcohol are similar to those seen with other sedative-hypnotics (apart from organ toxicity which is much more problematic with alcohol). Withdrawal effects and dependence are also almost identical. Alcohol at moderate levels has some positive and negative effects on health. The negative effects include increased risk of liver diseases, oropharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatitis. Conversely moderate intake of alcohol may have some benefitial effects on gastritis and cholelithiasis. Chronic alcohol misuse and abuse has serious effects on physical and mental health. Chronic excess alcohol intake, or alcohol dependence, can lead to a wide range of neuropsychiatric or neurological impairment, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and malignant neoplasms. The psychiatric disorders which are associated with alcoholism include major depression, dysthymia, mania, hypomania, panic disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia, suicide, neurologic deficits (e.g. impairments of working memory, emotions, executive functions, visuospatial abilities and gait and balance) and brain damage. Alcohol dependence is associated with hypertension, coronary heart disease, and ischemic stroke, cancer of the respiratory system, but also cancers of the digestive system, liver, breast and ovaries. Heavy drinking is associated with liver disease, such as cirrhosis. Studies have focused on both men and women, various age groups, and people of many ethnic groups. Published papers now total in the many hundreds, with studies having shown correlation between moderate alcohol use and health that may instead have been due to the beneficial effects of socialization that is often accompanied by alcohol consumption. Some of the specific ways alcohol affects cardiovascular health have been studied.
Some research has claimed the all-cause mortality rates may be 16 to 28% lower among moderate drinkers (1–2 drinks per day) than among abstainers. New York Times journalist Roni Caryn Rabin reasons that the statistics of this research are flawed.
Maximum quantity recommended
Different countries recommend different maximum quantities. For most countries the maximum quantity for men is 140g—210g per week. For women, the range is 84g—140g per week. Most countries recommend total abstinence whilst pregnant or breastfeeding.
Over-consumption of alcohol is one of the leading preventable causes of death worldwide. One study links alcohol to 1 in every 25 deaths worldwide and that 5% of years lived with disability are attributable to alcohol consumption.
Countries collect statistics on alcohol-related deaths. While some categories relate to short-term effects, such as accidents, many relate to long-term effects of alcohol.
"Excessive alcohol consumption in Russia, particularly by men, has in recent years caused more than half of all the deaths at ages 15-54 years."
- Mental and behavioural disorders due to use of alcohol – ICD-10 F10
- Degeneration of nervous system due to alcohol – ICD-10 G31.2
- Alcoholic polyneuropathy – ICD-10 G62.1
- Alcoholic cardiomyopathy – ICD-10 I42.6
- Alcoholic gastritis – ICD-10 K29.2
- Alcoholic liver disease – ICD-10 K70
- Chronic hepatitis, not elsewhere classified – ICD-10 K73
- Fibrosis and cirrhosis of liver – ICD-10 K74 (Excluding K74.3-K74.5 – Biliary cirrhosis)
- Alcohol induced chronic pancreatitis – ICD-10 K86.0
- Accidental poisoning by and exposure to alcohol – ICD-10 X45
- Intentional self-poisoning by and exposure to alcohol – ICD-10 X65
- Poisoning by and exposure to alcohol, undetermined intent – ICD-10 Y15
UK statistical bodies report that "There were 8,724 alcohol-related deaths in 2007, lower than 2006, but more than double the 4,144 recorded in 1991. The alcohol-related death rate was 13.3 per 100,000 population in 2007, compared with 6.9 per 100,000 population in 1991."
In Scotland, the NHS estimate that in 2003 one in every 20 deaths could be attributed to alcohol.
A 2009 study found that 9,000 people are dying from alcohol-related diseases every year, three times the number 25 years previously.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, "From 2001–2005, there were approximately 79,000 deaths annually attributable to excessive alcohol use. In fact, excessive alcohol use is the 3rd leading lifestyle-related cause of death for people in the United States each year." A 1993 study estimated US deaths through alcohol at 100,000.
A 23-year prospective study of 12,000 male British physicians aged 48–78, found that overall mortality was significantly lower in the group consuming less than 2 "units" (British unit = 8 g) per day than in the non-alcohol-drinking group. Greater than 2 units per day was associated with an increased risk of mortality. Alcohol represented 5% of deaths in the sample of physicians.
A meta-analysis of 34 studies found a reduced risk of mortality from coronary heart disease in men who drank 2 - 4 drinks per day and women who drank 1 - 2 drinks per day. A meta-analysis of randomized trials found that alcohol consumption in moderation decreases serum levels of fibrinogen, a protein that promotes clot formation and increases levels of tissue type plasminogen activator, an enzyme that helps dissolve clots. The serum levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation and predictor of CHD risk, are lower in people who drink moderately than those who abstain from alcohol suggesting that alcohol consumption in moderation might have anti-inflammatory effects. In addition to its psychotropic properties, alcohol has anticoagulation properties similar to warfarin. Additionally, thrombosis is lower among moderate drinkers than teetotalers.
Despite epidemiological evidence, some criticize the idea of recommending alcohol for health benefits. A doctor at the World Health Organisation stated that recommending moderate alcohol consumption for health benefits is "ridiculous and dangerous". There have been no randomised controlled trials to demonstrate the cardio benefits of alcohol. Due to the risks of abuse, dependence, adverse effects, alcohol should never be recommended for cardio benefits. Instead, a good diet, exercise, and if necessary pharmacotherapy are the recommended treatments for cardio-protection. It has been argued that the health benefits from alcohol are at best debatable and may have been exaggerated by the alcohol industry. Alcohol should be regarded as a recreational drug with potentially serious adverse effects on health and should not be promoted for cardio-protection.
Peripheral Arterial Disease
"Moderate alcohol consumption appears to decrease the risk of PAD in apparently healthy men." "In this large population-based study, moderate alcohol consumption was inversely associated with peripheral arterial disease in women but not in men. Residual confounding by smoking may have influenced the results. Among nonsmokers an inverse association was found between alcohol consumption and peripheral arterial disease in both men and women."
Intermittent claudication (IC)
A study found that moderate consumption of alcohol had a protective effect against intermittent claudication. The lowest risk was seen in men who drank 1 to 2 drinks per day and in women who drank half to 1 drink per day.
Heart attack and stroke
Drinking in moderation has been found to help those who have suffered a heart attack survive it. However, excessive alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of heart failure. A review of the literature found that half a drink of alcohol offered the best level of protection. However, they noted that at present there have been no randomised trials to confirm the evidence which suggests a protective role of low doses of alcohol against heart attacks. However, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with hypertension. There is an increased risk of hypertriglyceridemia, cardiomyopathy, hypertension, and stroke if 3 or more standard drinks of alcohol are taken per day.
Large amount of alcohol can lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, commonly known as "holiday heart syndrome." Alcoholic cardiomyopathy presents in a manner clinically identical to idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, involving hypertrophy of the musculature of the heart that can lead to a form of cardiac arrythmia. These electrical anomalies, represented on an EKG, often vary in nature, but range from nominal changes of the PR, QRS, or QT intervals to paroxsysmal episodes of ventricular tachycardia. The pathophysiology of alcoholic cardiomyopathy has not been firmly identified, but certain hypotheses cite an increased secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine, increased sympathetic output, or a rise in the level of plasma free fatty acids as possible mechanisms.
Chronic heavy alcohol consumption impairs brain development, causes brain shrinkage, dementia, physical dependence, increases neuropsychiatric and cognitive disorders and causes distortion of the brain chemistry. Some studies however have shown that moderate alcohol consumption may decrease risk of dementia, including Alzheimer disease, although there are studies which find the opposite. At present due to poor study design and methodology the literature is inconclusive on whether moderate alcohol consumptions increases the risk of dementia or decreases it. Evidence for a protective effect of low to moderate alcohol consumption on age related cognitive decline and dementia has been suggested by some research, however, other research has not found a protective effect of low to moderate alcohol consumption. Some evidence suggests that low to moderate alcohol consumption may speed up brain volume loss.
Alcohol abuse is associated with wide spread and significant brain lesions. Alcohol related brain damage is due to not also the direct toxic effects of alcohol; alcohol withdrawal, nutritional deficiency, electrolyte disturbances, and liver damage are also believed to contribute to alcohol related brain damage.
Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a period of time can impair normal brain development in humans. Deficits in retrieval of verbal and nonverbal information and in visuospatial functioning were evident in youths with histories of heavy drinking during early and middle adolescence.
During adolescence critical stages of neurodevelopment occur. Binge drinking, which is common among adolescents, interferes with this important stage of development. Heavy alcohol consumption inhibits new brain cell development.
Cognition and dementia
Excessive alcohol intake is associated with impaired prospective memory. This impaired cognitive ability leads to increased failure to carry out an intended task at a later date, for example, forgetting to lock the door or to post a letter on time. The higher the volume of alcohol consumed and the longer consumed, the more severe the impairments. One of the organs most sensitive to the toxic effects of chronic alcohol consumption is the brain. In France approximately 20% of admissions to mental health facilities are related to alcohol related cognitive impairment, most notably alcohol related dementia. Chronic excessive alcohol intake is also associated with serious cognitive decline and a range of neuropsychiatric complications. The elderly are the most sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol on the brain. There is some inconclusive evidence that small amounts of alcohol taken in earlier adult life is protective in later life against cognitive decline and dementia. However, a study concluded, "Our findings suggest that, despite previous suggestions, moderate alcohol consumption does not protect older people from cognitive decline."
Acetaldehyde is produced by the liver during breakdown of ethanol. People who have a genetic deficiency for the subsequent conversion of acetaldehyde into acetic acid (a trait more prevalent in those of East Asian descent) may have a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease. "These results indicate that the ALDH2 deficiency is a risk factor for LOAD [late-onset Alzheimer's disease] …"
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a manifestation of thiamine deficiency, usually as a secondary effect of alcohol abuse. The syndrome is a combined manifestation of two eponymous disorders, Korsakoff's Psychosis and Wernicke's encephalopathy, named after Drs. Sergei Korsakoff and Carl Wernicke. Wernicke's encephalopathy is the acute presentation of the syndrome and is characterised by a confusional state while Korsakoff's psychosis main symptoms are amnesia and executive dysfunction.
Chronic use of alcohol used to induce sleep can lead to insomnia. Frequent moving between sleep stages occurs, with awakenings due to headaches and diaphoresis. Stopping chronic alcohol abuse can also lead to profound disturbances of sleep with vivid dreams. Chronic alcohol abuse is associated with NREM stage 3 and 4 sleep as well as suppression of REM sleep and REM sleep fragmentation. During withdrawal REM sleep is typically exaggerated as part of a rebound effect.
Mental health effects
High rates of major depressive disorder occur in heavy drinkers and those who abuse alcohol. Controversy has previously surrounded whether those who abused alcohol who developed major depressive disorder were self medicating (which may be true in some cases) but recent research has now concluded that chronic excessive alcohol intake itself directly causes the development of major depressive disorder in a significant number of alcohol abusers. Alcohol misuse is associated with a number of mental health disorders and alcoholics have a very high suicide rate. A study of people hospitalised for suicide attempts found that those who were alcoholics were 75 times more likely to go on to successfully commit suicide than non-alcoholic suicide attempters. In the general alcoholic population the increased risk of suicide compared to the general public is 5 - 20 times greater. About 15 percent of alcoholics commit suicide. Abuse of other drugs is also associated with an increased risk of suicide. About 33 percent of suicides in the under 35s are due to alcohol or other substance misuse.
Studies have shown that alcohol dependence relates directly to cravings and irritability. Another study has shown that alcohol use is a significant predisposing factor towards antisocial behavior in children. Depression, anxiety and panic disorder are disorders commonly reported by alcohol dependent people. Alcoholism is associated with dampened activation in brain networks responsible for emotional processing (e.g. the amygdala and hippocampus). Evidence that the mental health disorders are often induced by alcohol misuse via distortion of brain neurochemistry is indicated by the improvement or disappearance of symptoms that occurs after prolonged abstinence, although problems may worsen in early withdrawal and recovery periods. Psychosis is secondary to several alcohol-related conditions including acute intoxication and withdrawal after significant exposure. Chronic alcohol misuse can cause psychotic type symptoms to develop, more so than with other drugs of abuse. Alcohol abuse has been shown to cause an 800% increased risk of psychotic disorders in men and a 300% increased risk of psychotic disorders in women which are not related to pre-existing psychiatric disorders. This is significantly higher than the increased risk of psychotic disorders seen from cannabis use making alcohol abuse a very significant cause of psychotic disorders. Prominent hallucinations and/or delusions are usually present when a patient is intoxicated or recently withdrawn from alcohol.
Whilst alcohol initially helps social phobia or panic symptoms, with longer term alcohol misuse can often worsen social phobia symptoms and can cause panic disorder to develop or worsen, during alcohol intoxication and especially during the alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This effect is not unique to alcohol but can also occur with long term use of drugs which have a similar mechanism of action to alcohol such as the benzodiazepines which are sometimes prescribed as tranquillisers to people with alcohol problems. Approximately half of patients attending mental health services for conditions including anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or social phobia are the result of alcohol or benzodiazepine dependence. It was noted that every individual has an individual sensitivity level to alcohol or sedative hypnotic drugs and what one person can tolerate without ill health another will suffer very ill health and that even moderate drinking can cause rebound anxiety syndromes and sleep disorders. A person who is suffering the toxic effects of alcohol will not benefit from other therapies or medications as they do not address the root cause of the symptoms.
Digestive system and weight gain
A study concluded, "Mild to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower prevalence of the metabolic syndrome, with a favorable influence on lipids, waist circumference, and fasting insulin. This association was strongest among whites and among beer and wine drinkers." "Odds ratios for the metabolic syndrome and its components tended to increase with increasing alcohol consumption."
Research has found that drinking reduces the risk of developing gallstones. Compared with alcohol abstainers, the relative risk of gallstone disease, controlling for age, sex, education, smoking, and body mass index, is 0.83 for occasional and regular moderate drinkers (< 25 ml of ethanol per day), 0.67 for intermediate drinkers (25-50 ml per day), and 0.58 for heavy drinkers. This inverse association was consistent across strata of age, sex, and body mass index." Frequency of drinking also appears to be a factor. "An increase in frequency of alcohol consumption also was related to decreased risk. Combining the reports of quantity and frequency of alcohol intake, a consumption pattern that reflected frequent intake (5-7 days/week) of any given amount of alcohol was associated with a decreased risk, as compared with nondrinkers. In contrast, infrequent alcohol intake (1-2 days/week) showed no significant association with risk.”
Alcoholic liver disease is a major public health problem. For example in the United States up to two million people have alcohol related liver disorders. Chronic alcohol abuse can cause fatty liver, cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis. Treatment options are limited and consist of most importantly discontinuing alcohol consumption. In cases of severe liver disease, the only treatment option may be a liver transplant in alcohol abstinent patients. Research is being conducted into the effectiveness of anti-TNF's. Certain complimentary medications, e.g., milk thistle and silymarin, appear to offer some benefit. Alcohol is a leading cause of liver cancer in the Western world, accounting for 32-45% of hepatic cancers. Up to half a million people in the United States develop alcohol related liver cancer. Moderate alcohol consumption also increases the risk of liver disease.
Alcohol misuse is a leading cause of both acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Chronic excessive intake of alcohol can cause destruction of the pancreas resulting in severe chronic pain, which may progress to pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis often results in malabsorption problems and diabetes.
Alcoholic Lung disease
Chronic alcohol ingestion impairs multiple critical cellular functions in the lung. These cellular impairments lead to increased susceptibility to serious complications from lung disease. Recent research cites alcoholic lung disease as comparable to liver disease in alcohol related mortality. Alcoholics have a higher risk of developing acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and experience higher rates of mortality from ARDS when compared to non-alcoholics.
Research indicates that drinking alcohol is associated with a lower risk of developing kidney stones. One study concludes, "Since beer seemed to be protective against kidney stones, the physiologic effects of other substances besides ethanol, especially those of hops, should also be examined." "...consumption of coffee, alcohol, and vitamin C supplements were negatively associated with stones." "After mutually adjusting for the intake of other beverages, the risk of stone formation decreased by the following amount for each 240-ml (8-oz) serving consumed daily: caffeinated coffee, 10%; decaffeinated coffee, 10%; tea, 14%; beer, 21%; and wine, 39%." "...stone formation decreased by the following amount for each 240-mL (8-oz) serving consumed daily: 10% for caffeinated coffee, 9% for decaffeinated coffee, 8% for tea, and 59% for wine." (CI data excised from last two quotes.).
Excessive alcohol intake can result in hyperoestrogenisation. It has been speculated that alcohol beverages may contain estrogen like compounds. In men, high levels of estrogen can lead to testicular failure and the development of feminine traits including development of male breasts, called gynecomastia. In women, increased levels of estrogen due to excessive alcohol intake have been related to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Moderate drinkers may have a lower risk of diabetes than non-drinkers. On the other hand, binge drinking and high alcohol consumption may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes in women." Alcohol consumption promotes insulin sensitivity.
Regular consumption of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of gouty arthritis and a decreased risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Two recent studies report that the more alcohol consumed, the lower the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Among those who drank regularly, the one-quarter who drank the most were up to 50% less likely to develop the disease compared to the half who drank the least.
The researchers noted that moderate alcohol consumption also reduces the risk of other inflammatory processes such as cardiovascualar disease. Some of the biological mechanisms by which ethanol reduces the risk of destructive arthritis and prevents the loss of bone mineral density (BMD), which is part of the disease process.
A study concluded, "Alcohol either protects from RA or, subjects with RA curtail their drinking after the manifestation of RA". Another study found, "Postmenopausal women who averaged more than 14 alcoholic drinks per week had a reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis..."
Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with higher bone mineral density in postmenopausal women. "...Alcohol consumption significantly decreased the likelihood [of osteoporosis]." "Moderate alcohol intake was associated with higher BMD in postmenopausal elderly women." "Social drinking is associated with higher bone mineral density in men and women [over 45]." However, alcohol abuse is associated with bone loss.
Chronic excessive alcohol abuse is associated with a wide range of skin disorders including urticaria, porphyria cutanea tarda, flushing, cutaneous stigmata of cirrhosis, psoriasis, pruritus, seborrheic dermatitis and rosacea.
A 2010 study concluded, "Nonlight beer intake is associated with an increased risk of developing psoriasis among women. Other alcoholic beverages did not increase the risk of psoriasis in this study."
There is a protective effect of alcohol consumption against active infection with H. pylori In contrast, alcohol intake (comparing those who drink > 30 gm of alcohol per day to nondrinkers) is not associated with higher risk of duodenal ulcer. Excessive alcohol consumption seen in alcoholics is a known risk factor for pneumonia.
A study on the common cold found that "Greater numbers of alcoholic drinks (up to three or four per day) were associated with decreased risk for developing colds because drinking was associated with decreased illness following infection. However, the benefits of drinking occurred only among nonsmokers. [...] Although alcohol consumption did not influence risk of clinical illness for smokers, moderate alcohol consumption was associated with decreased risk for nonsmokers."
Another study concluded, "Findings suggest that wine intake, especially red wine, may have a protective effect against common cold. Beer, spirits, and total alcohol intakes do not seem to affect the incidence of common cold."
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (Centre International de Recherche sur le Cancer) of the World Health Organization has classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen. Its evaluation states, "There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages in humans.... Alcoholic beverages are carcinogenic to humans (Group 1)."
One study determined that "3.6% of all cancer cases worldwide are related to alcohol drinking, resulting in 3.5% of all cancer deaths."
The World Cancer Research Fund panel report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective finds the evidence "convincing" that alcoholic drinks increase the risk of the following cancers: mouth, pharynx and larynx, oesophagus, colorectum (men), breast (pre- and postmenopause).
High concentrations of acetaldehyde, which is produced as the body breaks down ethanol, may damage DNA in healthy cells. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have shown that acetaldehyde reacts with polyamines which are naturally occurring compounds essential for cell growth—to create a particularly dangerous type of mutagenic DNA base called a Cr-Pdg adduct. Even moderate levels of alcohol consumption are associated with an increased risk of certain forms of cancer.
Alcohol's effect on the fetus
Fetal alcohol syndrome or FAS is a disorder of permanent birth defects that occurs in the offspring of women who drink alcohol during pregnancy. Drinking heavily or during the early stages of prenatal development has been conclusively linked to FAS; moderate consumption is associated with fetal damage. Alcohol crosses the placental barrier and can stunt fetal growth or weight, create distinctive facial stigmata, damaged neurons and brain structures, and cause other physical, mental, or behavioural problems. Fetal alcohol exposure is the leading known cause of mental retardation in the Western world. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is associated with brain insulin and insulin-like growth factor resistance.
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