The short-term effects of drinking alcohol are usually obvious. However, if you regularly drink too much alcohol, you can be putting your long-term health at risk. There can be hidden harmful effects of drinking alcohol that may not become apparent until years later.
Drinking as little as three units of alcohol a day increases your risk of developing many types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), liver, breast and bowel.
Regularly drinking too much alcohol damages your heart and increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Damage to your heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) can cause it to pump blood around your body less effectively. It can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).
Alcohol damages your liver. Your liver is the largest organ in your body and one of its many functions is to filter and clean your blood. It takes about one hour for your liver to break down one unit of alcohol. If you regularly drink too much alcohol, you are at risk of developing a range of alcoholic liver diseases including fatty liver disease, hepatitis and alcohol-induced cirrhosis (fibrosis or scarring of your liver). If you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may recover. However, continuing to drink when your liver is damaged can lead to complete liver failure.
Alcohol damages your pancreas. Your pancreas is an organ that lies behind your stomach and produces digestive enzymes which help to break down fatty food, as well as insulin, which helps control blood sugar. If you drink too much alcohol, it can lead to acute or chronic pancreatitis. With acute pancreatitis, your pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time. Chronic pancreatitis is when your pancreas continues to be inflamed over a long period of time, and the damage may be permanent.
Regularly drinking more than the daily recommended amount is known to affect fertility in both men and women.
Drinking heavily over a long time can severely affect your mental health. It can increase anxiety and cause depression. It’s also associated with risk-taking behaviour, personality disorders, schizophrenia and suicide.
Regular heavy alcohol use can lead to nerve and brain damage, resulting in memory problems, dementia and damage to small nerve endings.
It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines, however, recommend not regularly drinking more than three or four units a day for men, and two or three units a day for women. Although ‘Regularly’ means every day or most days of the week, it’s a good idea to have at least two alcohol-free days a week so you don’t go over the limits. So over a week, men shouldn’t have more than 21 units and women shouldn’t have more than 14 units.
This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. A drinking binge is generally defined as drinking double the daily recommended units in one session.
If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.
Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2012.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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