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 10 conditions linked to chronic 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 lightheadedness.
“Habitual drinking increases the risk of cancer,” says Jurgen Rehm, PhD, chairman of the University of Toronto’s department of addiction policy and a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, also in Toronto. 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.
3. Cardiovascular disease
Heavy drinking, especially bingeing, makes platelets more likely to clump together into blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. In a landmark study published in 2005, Harvard researchers found that binge drinking doubled the risk of death among people who initially survived a heart attack.
Heavy drinking can also cause cardiomyopathy, a potentially deadly condition in which the heart muscle weakens and eventually fails, as well as heart rhythm abnormalities such as atrial and ventricular fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, in which the heart’s upper chambers (atria) twitch chaotically rather than constrict rhythmically, can cause blood clots that can trigger a stroke. Ventricular fibrillation causes chaotic twitching in the heart’s main pumping chambers (ventricles). It causes rapid loss of consciousness and, in the absence of immediate treatment, sudden death.
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.
5. Cause Depression
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 was probably the other way around — that is, heavy drinking led to depression.
Research has also shown that depression improves when heavy drinkers go on the wagon, Saitz says.
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. But it’s hard to predict which drinkers will develop cirrhosis. “Some people who drink huge amounts never get cirrhosis, and some who don’t drink very much do get it,” Saitz says. For some unknown reason, women seem to be especially vulnerable.
7. 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 bingeing, 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.
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,” Saitz says. Some cases of chronic pancreatitis are triggered by gallstones, but up to 60% stem from alcohol consumption.
9. Increase in Sugar levels
The pancreas helps regulate your body’s insulin use and response to glucose. When your pancreas and liver aren’t functioning properly, you run the risk of experiencing low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. A damaged pancreas may also prevent the body from producing enough insulin to utilize sugar. This can lead to hyperglycemia, or too much sugar in the blood. If your body can’t manage and balance your blood sugar levels, you may experience greater complications and side effects related to diabetes. It’s important for people with diabetes or hypoglycemia to avoid excessive amounts of alcohol.
Some people who drink heavily may develop a physical and emotional dependency on alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can be difficult and life-threatening. You often need professional help to break an alcohol addiction. As a result, many people seek medical detoxification to get sober. It’s the safest way to ensure you break the physical addiction. Depending on the risk for withdrawal symptoms, detoxification can be managed on either an outpatient or inpatient basis.