12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

WebMD Feature by David Freeman
Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD
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.
"Alcohol does all kinds of things in the body,
and we're not fully aware of all its effects,"
says James C. Garbutt, MD, professor of
psychiatry at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and a
researcher at the university's Bowles Center
for Alcohol Studies. "It's a pretty complicated
little molecule."
Here are 12 conditions linked to chronic heavy
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
"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.
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.
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.
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,"
Garbutt says.
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 was probably the other
way around -- that is, heavy drinking led to
Research has also shown that depression
improves when heavy drinkers go on the
wagon, Saitz says.
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 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.
Infectious disease
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," Rehmn says.
Nerve damage
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," Saitz says. Some cases of chronic
pancreatitis are triggered by gallstones, but up
to 60% stem from alcohol consumption.

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