Using alcohol carries all kinds of risks. It impairs your judgment, making you more likely to hurt yourself or others, to have trouble with the law, to do poorly at work and school, and to have relationship trouble.
Alcohol also has specific health risks: they can damage major organs, increase your risk of cancers, and even cause death.
It’s no secret that alcohol consumption can cause major health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver and injuries sustained in automobile accidents.
But if you think liver disease and car crashes are the only health risks posed by drinking, think again. Researchers have linked alcohol consumption to more than 60 diseases.
Here are 12 conditions linked to chronic heavy drinking:
Heavy drinking can cause the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be abnormally low. This condition, known as anemia, can trigger a host of symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and light headedness.
Habitual drinking increases the risk of cancer. Scientists believe the increased risk comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen. Cancer sites linked to alcohol use include the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region. Cancer risk rises even higher in heavy drinkers who also use tobacco.
Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking makes platelets more likely to clump together into blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and many heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, a sometimes-lethal condition in which the liver is so heavily scarred that it is unable to function. For some unknown reason, women seem to be especially vulnerable.
As people age, their brains shrink, on average, at a rate of about 1.9% per decade. That’s considered normal. But heavy drinking speeds the shrinkage of certain key regions in the brain, resulting in memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.
Heavy drinking can also lead to subtle but potentially debilitating deficits in the ability to plan, make judgments, solve problems, and perform other aspects of executive function, which are the higher-order abilities that allow us to maximize our function as human beings.
In addition to the “nonspecific” dementia that stems from brain atrophy, heavy drinking can cause nutritional deficiencies so severe that they trigger other forms of dementia.
It’s long been known that heavy drinking often goes hand in hand with depression, but there has been debate about which came first; the drinking or the depression. One theory is that depressed people turned to alcohol in an attempt to “self-medicate” to ease their emotional pain. But a large study from New Zealand showed that it is probably the other way around; that is heavy drinking leads to depression.
Heavy drinking can cause epilepsy and can trigger seizures even in people who don’t have epilepsy. It can also interfere with the action of the medications used to treat convulsions.
A painful condition, gout is caused by the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints. Although some cases are largely hereditary, alcohol and other dietary factors seem to play a role. Alcohol also seems to aggravate existing cases of gout.
High blood pressure
Alcohol can disrupt the sympathetic nervous system, which, among other things, controls the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature, exertion, etc. Heavy drinking and binge drinking in particular can cause blood pressure to rise. Over time this effect can become chronic. High blood pressure can lead to many other health problems, including kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke.
Heavy drinking suppresses the immune system, providing a toehold for infections, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases (including some that cause infertility). People who drink heavily also are more likely to engage in risky sex. Heavy drinking is associated with a three-fold increase in the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
Heavy drinking can cause a form of nerve damage known as alcoholic neuropathy, which can produce a painful pins-and-needles feeling or numbness in the extremities as well as muscle weakness, incontinence, constipation, erectile dysfunction, and other problems. Alcoholic neuropathy may arise because alcohol is toxic to nerve cells, or because nutritional deficiencies attributable to heavy drinking compromise nerve function.
In addition to causing stomach irritation (gastritis), drinking can inflame the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis interferes with the digestive process, causing severe abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea and it’s not fixable. Some cases of chronic pancreatitis are triggered by gallstones, but up to 60% stem from alcohol consumption.
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