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Do You Really Know the Health Effects of Alcohol?

Published on Apr 23, 2018
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Is drinking alcohol good or bad for you? There are conflicting reports about the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol. Some studies report that moderate amounts of alcohol are linked to health benefits. Others say that any amount is no good. Read on to learn more about the health effects of alcohol.

How alcohol affects your body

To understand the relationship between alcohol and your health, it’s important to understand the way alcohol affects the body. Alcohol is quickly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Eventually, it is broken down slowly (removed from the body) by the liver. The bottom line is, alcohol can affect every organ in the body. For example, it depresses the central nervous system, which includes the brain. As a result, it can impair judgment, interfere with coordination, and delay reaction time. Alcohol can also affect mood and behavior.

Everyone reacts differently to alcohol. There are several factors that influence how you react to alcohol. These include:

  • Age.
  • Sex.
  • Race or ethnicity.
  • Physical condition (for example, weight, fitness level).
  • Amount of food eaten before drinking.
  • How quickly the alcohol is consumed.
  • Use of drugs or prescription medicines.
  • Family history of alcohol problems.

Are there health benefits from drinking in moderation?

Some studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may have some health benefits (for example, lowering the risk of heart disease). However, it is not known if these benefits are due to the consumption of alcohol or to other factors such as differences in behaviors between those who drink moderately and those who don’t.

What’s more, recent studies bring into question any health benefits related to moderate drinking. It’s important to note that any potential benefits of drinking may be outweighed by the greater health-related risks associated with heavy or risky drinking.

Health problems related to drinking

Drinking too much can cause a number of health-related problems, and women seem to be more vulnerable to certain alcohol related problems than men. This is because even when a man and a woman drink an equal amount of alcohol, a woman’s body absorbs more alcohol and takes longer to break it down and remove it.

Health problems related to heavy or at-risk drinking may include:

  • Liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver that interferes with the liver’s ability to function properly) In women who abuse alcohol, liver damage is more likely to occur than in men, who drink a similar amount.
  • Pancreatitis (swelling and inflammation of the pancreas that interferes with digestion).
  • Some types of cancer, such as cancer of the mouth, throat, or liver. Research suggests that women who drink at least one drink per day have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Heart disease such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, or stroke. Women are more prone to alcohol related heart disease than men.
  • A weakened immune system.
  • Birth defects (drinking during pregnancy can cause serious problems in babies).
  • Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism.

Excessive alcohol use may lead to unintentional injuries, such as car accidents, falls, and drowning; violent behaviors; or risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. Long-term issues may also include social problems, such as unemployment, poor school performance, family problems, and lost productivity.

What’s the bottom line?

If you drink, do so in moderation. If you take any medication or have a medical condition, talk with your healthcare provider to see if it’s okay for you to drink at all.

If you think you have a problem with alcohol, talk with your healthcare provider. Only 1 in 6 people tell their doctor about their drinking habits. However, doing so can enable your healthcare provider to work with you to develop a plan to help you. The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service (1-800-662-HELP) can also provide information about treatment programs near you.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]


  • 1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets—Moderate Drinking. Accessed September 20, 2017.
  • 2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed September 19, 2017.
  • 3. National Library of Medicine. Central Nervous System. Accessed September 19, 2017.
  • 4. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. Accessed September 21, 2017.
  • 5. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What Are the Risks? Accessed September 20, 2017.
  • 6. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Women and Alcohol. Accessed April 5, 2018.
  • 7. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Women. Accessed April 5, 2018.
  • 8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets—Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health. Accessed September 21, 2017.
  • 9. MedlinePlus. Cirrhosis. Accessed September 21, 2017.
  • 10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets: Alcohol Use and Your Health. Accessed December 4, 2017.
  • 11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Screening and Counseling. Accessed September 21, 2017.
External Resources

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After reading this article, how likely are you to speak with your healthcare provider (or someone you know) about the health effects of alcohol use?

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