Risks associated with heavy drinkingBefore discussing some of the health consequences associated with alcohol, it’s important to discuss some of the key terms associated with alcohol consumption. Generally, when discussing drinking in moderation, it is defined as having no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  This is not intended as an average over several days, but instead the amount consumed on any single day.5  For men, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming an average of more than 2 drinks per day and for women is typically defined as consuming an average of more than 1 drink per day. 3

A pattern of alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08% or more is defined as binge drinking according to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism.  A pattern of 5 or more drinks on a single occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women, generally within 2 hours, usually corresponds to binge drinking. 4

Health problems associated with heavy drinking can include the following:

Nerve Damage

  • Constipation, erectile dysfunction, incontinence, a feeling of numbness in the extremities, muscle weakness, and painful pins-and-needles, are all symptoms that can be produced by alcoholic neuropathy, which is a form of nerve damage that can be caused by heavy drinking.  Alcoholic neuropathy may be caused by nutritional deficiencies attributable to heavy drinking, which can compromise nerve function due to the toxicity of alcohol to nerve cells.2

Digestive Complications

  • There can be interference with the absorption of B vitamins and other nutrients due to inflammation of the lining of the stomach (gastritis), which alcohol consumption can cause.  Hormones that regulate your metabolism and the enzymes that help digest fats, protein, and carbohydrate are produced by the pancreas, which can also be damaged by heavy drinking.1
  • Alcohol consumption can inflame the pancreas and trigger pancreatitis, which when chronic can cause severe abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea.2

Heart Complications

  • The constriction and dilation of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature, and exertion is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and can be disrupted by alcohol.  Blood pressure can rise as a result of heavy drinking and binge drinking in particular.  Kidney damage, stroke, and heart disease can be caused by high blood pressure.2
  • Platelets are more likely to clump together into blood clots when heavy drinking and especially when binge drinking, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.  It was found that binge drinking doubled the risk of death among people who initially survived a heart attack, according to Harvard researchers in a landmark study published in 2005.2
  • Cardiomyopathy, a potentially deadly condition in which the heart muscle weakens and eventually fails, and heart rhythm abnormalities, such as atrial and ventricular fibrillation, can occur as a result of heavy drinking.  Blood clots that can trigger a stroke can be caused by atrial fibrillation.  Rapid loss of consciousness, which in the absence of immediate treatment can cause sudden death, is caused by ventricular fibrillation. 2


  • There is an increased risk for low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) because alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from your liver.  If you are taking insulin to lower blood sugar to control your diabetes, this can be very dangerous.1

Sexual Function

  • Erectile dysfunction can happen in men as a result of alcohol abuse.1

Eye Complications

  • There can be weakness and paralysis of your eye muscles over time due to excessive alcohol use.1

Health consequences of heavy alcohol useLiver Complications

  • An inflammation of the liver, called alcoholic hepatitis, can be caused by drinking heavily.  Alcoholic hepatitis can cause progressive and irreversible destruction of the liver tissue (cirrhosis), after years of drinking.1

Birth Defects

  • A child born to a mother who had been drinking alcohol during pregnancy may have physical and developmental problems due to fetal alcohol syndrome.1

Bone Complications

  • Individuals may have thinning bones (osteoporosis) and an increased risk of fractures due to alcohol use, as alcohol interferes with the production of new bone.1

Neurological Complications and Dementia

  • One can have numbness of the hands and feet, dementia, short term memory loss, and disordered thinking as a result of excessive drinking that affects the nervous system.1
  • Memory loss and other symptoms of dementia can be caused by heavy drinking, as it speeds up the shrinkage of certain key regions of the brain.
  • There may be deficits in the ability to plan, solve problems, make judgments, and perform other aspects of executive function, which can be subtle but potentially debilitating as a result of heavy drinking.2
  • There can also be nutritional deficiencies that are so severe that they can trigger other forms of dementia caused by heavy drinking.2
  • Seizures may be triggered by heavy drinking and cause epilepsy.  Medications that are used to treat convulsions can also be interfered with as a result of heavy drinking.2


  • Existing cases of gout, a painful condition caused by the formation of uric acid crystals, seem to be aggravated by alcohol.2

Increased risk of cancer

  • There has been a link to a higher risk of numerous cancers, including mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancer as a result of chronic alcohol abuse.1  Acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen that occurs in the body when alcohol is broken down, is what scientists believe might be the cause of the increased cancer risk.2  In heavy drinkers who also use tobacco,  the risk for cancer is even higher.2


  • The number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells can be abnormally low as a result of heavy drinking.  Shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and fatigue are a host of symptoms that this condition, known as anemia, can cause.2

Teen drinkingTeen Risk

  • A major cause of teen death is alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents.  Alcohol is often the cause among other teenage deaths including drowning, homicides, and suicide, alcohol is often the cause.1
  • It has been shown that teens may engage in risky, unprotected sex, have sex more frequently, and are more likely to become sexually active if they drink versus those that do not.1


1.  Mayo Clinic. (2010, May 6). Alcoholism – Complications. Retrieved January 14, 2012, from

2. WebMD. (2011, September 15). Alcohol Abuse Health Center-Health Risks of Alcohol: 12 Health Problems Associated with Chronic Heavy Drinking. Retrieved January 14, 2012, from

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011, October 28). Alcohol and Public Health –  Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved January14, 2012, from

4.National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIAAA council approves definition of binge drinking  (PDF–1.6Mb) NIAAA Newsletter 2004;3:3.

5.United States Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Health and Human Services. In: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Chapter 9 – Alcoholic Beverages. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 2005, p. 43–46. Available at Accessed March 28, 2008.