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How Alcohol Use Affects Health

how alcohol use affects healthYou may have heard of Dry January, a campaign run in the U.K. by Alcohol Concern. To promote alcohol awareness, it involves (as you’ve likely gathered) completely abstaining from alcohol for the month of January.

It’s a valuable campaign with noble intentions, but a minority of participants may unfortunately miss the wider point. A month of strict abstinence does lead some to drink more than they should come February 1.

Remaining alcohol free for a month is an achievement which deserves to be rewarded, but compensatory drinking is not what Dry January is trying to advocate.

A healthy attitude towards consumption (not necessarily total abstinence) is needed during every month of the year to reap lasting health benefits.

Alcohol and Health

  • The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that one in every 12 U.S. adults (over 17 million) are either dependent on alcohol or are habitual abusers.
  • Excessive alcohol use causes 88,000 deaths per year.
  • Alcohol-related illness is responsible for almost 40% of U.S. hospital bed occupancy (outside maternity and intensive care).

What are the risks?

Many will be familiar with some of the immediate effects of heavy use, but it may not be obvious to everyone just how much (or little) you need to drink before your body begins to act differently.

Reference point: there are two units in one 12-ounce pint of beer or 6-ounce glass of wine.

  • 1-2 units: Muscles become relaxed.
  • 4 units: Lower inhibitions. Difficulty focusing attention for long periods. Blood starts to move through the body faster.
  • 6 units: Decision-making becomes affected. Strain on liver function.
  • 8 units: Emotional confusion. Drop in sexual capability. A hangover becomes much more likely.
  • 10 units: Digestion problems, potentially vomiting. Urinary frequency increases, as does the likelihood of dehydration.
  • 12 or more units: Alcohol poisoning becomes a real risk. Breathing problems. Heartbeat may become irregular.

Long-term risks

Risk is dependent on consumption: for some conditions, levels need to be considerable to pose a real risk; but for others, even a mild alcohol habit can significantly raise susceptibility.


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A report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that $888 million was spent on hospital costs in the US on high blood pressure alone in 2010; a 61% increase on 2005 ($549 million). Hypertension can lead to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.

Erectile dysfunction

Alcohol-induced impotence can be either acute or chronic in nature; drinking considerable amounts can suppress erectile potency within hours, while a regular alcohol habit can induce blood flow problems and cause repeated episodes. Chronic ED is thought to affect around two-thirds of alcohol dependent men.

Type 2 diabetes

According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol use is thought to increase sensitivity to insulin and actually lower the risk of diabetes, but this is not true of heavy use, which increases the risk of this condition developing. The definition of ‘moderate alcohol’ in this respect is up to two drinks daily for persons aged 65 and under; and one daily for those over 65.

Liver disease

There are around 100,000 annual hospital admissions for cirrhosis in the U.S. Cirrhosis becomes more likely after 10 years or more of heavy drinking. Men who drink over 35 units per week and women who drink over 28 are at particularly high risk.


Regular beer drinkers have a 20% increased lifetime risk of developing cancer. Even drinking a limited number of units every day can increase the risk of bowel cancer by 23%.


Roughly 40% of heavy alcohol users will develop depression or a condition with similar symptoms. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, ‘the use of alcohol acts to trigger genetic markers that increase the risk of depression.’


Binge drinkers are more at risk of developing dementia earlier, but even those who drink in moderation (seven to 14 units per week) are thought to be at increased risk according to a study published in 2012.

Guideline Amounts

There is no “safe level” of consumption when it comes to alcohol; the risk to health is said to be greater for men and women drinking more than 14 units per week on a regular basis. Those who do drink this amount are advised to spread their consumption over at least a three day period.

For people looking to adopt healthier drinking habits in the New Year, abstaining for the month of January is a great way to start. But this alone is not enough to counter the hazards of habitual overuse from February to December.

To paraphrase a well-worn cliché: moderation is for life, not just for the new year


Man with bottle photo available from Shutterstock

How Alcohol Use Affects Health

Dr. Wayne Osborne

Dr. Wayne Osborne has been working in general practice since 2002. As a GP working in the UK, his regular fields of practice tend to cover a wide range of areas, from pediatrics to elderly medicine. He now serves as head practitioner at, which provides a new and exciting, yet safe and secure way of delivering medical care to patients. For more information visit Dr. Wayne's medical blog.

APA Reference
Osborne, W. (2020). How Alcohol Use Affects Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 13 Feb 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.