Many adults enjoy drinking a few alcoholic beverages – beers, wines and spirits on a regular basis. While the occasional drinking of alcoholic beverage is less likely to pose harm to your health, excessive drinking can bring about significant negative effects on your body and overall well-being.
Too much of a good thing can be bad. In general, more than or equal to 3 units for a male and 2 units for a female (a day) is too much on a long-term basis. Drink binging is not suggested, even once a while.
How many alcohol units are in each drink?
A shot of spirits (25ml): 1 unit
A standard glass of wine (175ml): 2.1 units
A large glass of wine (250ml): 3 units
A pint of 4% beer: 2.3 units
A pint of 8% strong cider: 4.5 units
What are the health risks?
Our liver plays an important role in the body to metabolise and process the alcohol consumed. The liver cells may not be able to keep up if alcohol is consumed too much too fast, thus increasing the alcohol level in the bloodstream.
Exceeding the recommended limit for moderate alcohol use will introduce risks of excessive drinking. Binge drinking can be defined as consuming 5 or more drinks within 2 hours for men, and 4 or more drinks within 2 hours for women.
Too much alcohol consumption can cause a number of health problems including
- Problems managing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes
- Cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus, liver, colon, and breast
- Digestive problems
- Liver disease
- Diabetes complications
Health impacts on different organs of our body
Heavy alcohol drinking is another big cause to chronic pancreatitis, a condition where the pancreases is severely inflammed. It occurs mostly after an episode of acute pancreatitis. The damage from heavy alcohol use to the pancreas may not develop symptoms for many years and one day, suddenly develop severe pancreatitis symptoms such as diarrhoea, constant upper abdominal pain, and weight loss caused by malabsorption of food.
Drinking alcohol brings about depressant effects such as slurred speech and poor limb coordination that prevents the ability to walk properly, which can be seen in any occasional or moderate drinker. However, heavy drinkers may develop deficits in brain functioning and shrinkage of the frontal lobes of your brain over an extended period of time, that continue despite attaining sobriety. Cognitive problems can persist due to the long-term alcohol abuse that negatively impact the brain’s “hard wiring”, such as poor decision-making, mild to moderate impairment of intellectual functioning, confused or abnormal thinking and loss of inhibitions.
The more you drink alcohol at one time, the higher your heart rate gets. According to researchers, it is thought that overconsumption of alcohol creates an imbalance between the parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous systems, thus raising your heart rate. For people with heart conditions, experiencing a sudden spike in heart rate is potentially dangerous as it could trigger arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Regularly drinking too much alcohol also raises your blood pressure, and over time high blood pressure (hypertension) can place a strain on the heart muscle, increasing your risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure.
Too much alcohol consumption can irritate your digestive system and over time, damage your intestines leading to bouts of diarrhoea or stomach pain. It can also cause stomach distress with symptoms like bloating, gas and painful ulcers.
Chronic heavy drinking of alcohol can also lead to alcohol-related liver diseases such as fatty liver, cirrhosis and hepatitis. A person can have any of the conditions at a time, or all, if the disease is part of a progression.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs as the early stage of liver damage induced by alcohol. It develops over time when too much alcohol consumption leads to a build-up of fat in the body’s liver cells, thus hindering liver function. This condition can be followed by inflammation in the liver (alcoholic hepatitis) and may progress to a build-up of scar tissues in the liver, leading to alcoholic cirrhosis.
Symptoms may not be present in the early stages. As you continue drinking alcohol over time, the performance and health of your liver declines and symptoms may begin to appear, which often can be too late.
They may develop gradually and include:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Encephalopathy or confusion
- Severe itching of the skin
- Wasting of muscles
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
Moderation is key
By drinking lightly and in moderation, you can probably continue your drinking habits responsibly. Alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks. Before or during a drinking session, eating a snack or meal can help slow down the absorption of alcohol. Avoid eating salty food as they make you thirstier and reach out for more alcohol to drink and quench your thirst.
For those taking prescription and medication, they should also ask their doctor if they can drink alcohol while taking them. Individuals with health conditions like heart failure, liver or pancreatic disease and uncontrolled high blood pressure should also check with their doctor about drinking as alcohol can worsen pre-existing health conditions.
Diagnosis and treatment
Alcoholic liver cirrhosis can be diagnosed by gastroenterology specialists using blood tests and imaging procedures, including Fibroscan that will give a comprehensive assessment of a person’s liver health and determine disease severity. Patients in early stages of alcoholic hepatitis and fatty liver can reverse the condition, however, cirrhosis damage is irreversible and might require a liver transplant to survive.
You will need to abstain from drinking completely or gradually reduce your alcohol intake to see an improvement in your liver over time. Dietary and lifestyle modifications will be recommended to improve your well-being, and you can seek advice from a dietician for a balanced diet.