What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?
A study conducted by the RAND Corporation found that overall drinking was up an average of 14 percent for Americans in 2020, in large part due to pandemic-related stress.
Especially concerning was the increase of “heavy drinking” — consuming five or more drinks within a couple of hours for men, or four or more drinks within a couple of hours for women.
Women, in particular, saw a 41 percent increase in heavy drinking days.
While alcohol may temporarily temper stress about work, health, finances, and relationships, it’s not without consequence.
So what does alcohol do to your body?
Every drink has an impact, says Sal Raichbach, PsyD, a licensed clinical social work and addiction expert at Ambrosia Treatment Center in Florida.
“Alcohol of any volume will impact every organ system and take a toll on the normal processes of the human body,” Raichbach says.
Yep, there’s more to consider than just your liver — here’s how alcohol affects your body from head to toe.
Thinking that nightcap is helping you get to sleep?
While alcohol might initially help to relax your busy mind and make you feel sleepier, it doesn’t provide the restorative sleep needed for optimal health, Raichbach says.
Research suggests alcohol reduces the total amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is believed to play an important role in learning and memory.
Alcohol may also make it harder for your partner to get shuteye. A 2020 study found a positive association between alcohol intake and the severity of snoring.
In addition, research suggests alcohol consumption may be associated with an increased risk of sleep apnea.
“Increased risk of sleep apnea, which decreases oxygenation levels to the brain, can also affect cognition, memory, as well as mood,” says S. Monty Ghosh, M.D., an addiction specialist who specializes in Alcohol Use Disorder.
Alcohol can sometimes act as a diuretic, causing your body to remove liquid from your body faster than if you drink other beverages.
Dehydration can cause dizziness, dry mouth, and fatigue — plus it may have a negative impact on your next workout.
3. Skin Health
Alcohol can also draw moisture from your skin. “This can make wrinkles and fine lines appear more prominent,” says Ann Ramark, a nutritionist and founder of A Younger Skin.
Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol may also have a negative effect on the production of collagen, a protein that supports skin elasticity.
4. Weight Gain
Alcohol contains “empty calories,” which may make you more likely to pack on the pounds.
Research suggests that heavy drinking in particular may be related to weight gain.
Alcohol may also stimulate appetite, and alcohol-related weight gain may also come from the types of foods consumed when drinking — and the fact that you likely aren’t monitoring portion sizes quite as closely when tipsy.
Alcohol triggers the stomach to create more acid. It can also weaken the barrier between the stomach and the esophagus, allowing that acid to make its way up — which, in turn, may lead to irritation, gastroesophageal reflux, or even ulcers.
Diarrhea can also be a side effect of alcohol consumption.
The ethanol in alcohol speeds up the digestive process, which means your colon has less time to absorb water before moving things out the other end.
6. Sexual and Reproductive Health
Sleep isn’t the only thing alcohol can disrupt in the bedroom.
While a cocktail might lessen inhibitions, it may also have an impact on your under-the-covers performance — and that’s true for both men and women.
And if you’re trying to conceive, you may want to skip that sangria, recommends David Diaz, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA.
Regular consumption of a large amount of alcohol can lead to hormonal imbalances which may impact the reproductive system.
7. Heart Health
Research suggests moderate consumption of red wine may have some benefits for heart health.
However, it’s unclear whether those benefits come from the wine consumption or from other factors.
The American Heart Association notes: “It might be that moderate wine drinkers are more likely to have a healthier diet and lifestyle — including physical activity and lots of fruits and vegetables.”
And a recent study published in the European Heart Journal found that consuming just 1.2 drinks per day — that works out to around 14 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine — was associated with an increased risk of atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes a fast or irregular heartbeat.
There’s no clear evidence that alcohol supports heart health, and there may be some potential risks — so moderation is key.
8. Cognitive Function
Slurred speech, slow reaction speed, and blurred vision make it clear that a night of drinking can impact your brain.
But chronic, heavy drinking may have more significant impacts on the brain.
“Alcohol has effects on the brain’s reward system that are thought to underlie the cravings and compulsion to use alcohol despite the mounting negative consequences that result from alcoholism,” says Kristine Arthur, M.D., internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Laguna Woods, CA.
“Later in life, chronic alcohol use can damage the brain and increase the risk of memory and cognitive problems including dementia,” Arthur adds.
Excessive drinking may also be linked to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
9. Bone Health
According to the National Institute of Health, chronic heavy drinking can “dramatically compromise bone quality and may increase osteoporosis risk” — particularly among young adults.
Chronic alcohol consumption has been associated with vitamin D deficiency and reduced calcium absorption, both of which can affect bone health.
10. Workout Performance
Alcohol can potentially affect your gains as well. Excessive drinking may hamper your athletic performance during a workout.
And in a study of Australian athletes, researchers found that drinking after strength training may reduce muscle protein synthesis by 37 percent.
Not sure if you’re drinking too much?
Evaluate your consumption with an online screening questionnaire, such as those found at Alcohol Screening or CheckUp & Choices.
(And if you’re trying to limit your consumption, try a “mocktail” to get the same flavors — without the alcohol.)