The Real Effects of Alcohol on the Body: The Good and the Bad

Humans have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. Today, it is well known that there are significant differences between drinking in moderation and excessive intake of alcohol, such as the case with alcohol abuse and full blown addiction to alcohol, known as alcoholism.

In many studies, it has been found that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol is good for circulation and for the heart. Alcohol, when drunk in moderate amounts, seems to protect people against gallstones, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

What Is Moderate Alcohol Consumption?

Bullet For women, this means drinking no more than one alcoholic beverage per day.
Bullet For men, this means drinking no more than two alcoholic beverages per day.

One drink is about five ounces of wine, twelve ounces of beer, or about one and one half ounces of hard liquor. If more alcohol than that is consumed, the positive effects of alcohol seem to fade.

Positive Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption

Bullet Moderate alcohol consumption, such as in the amounts listed above, have been found to decrease the risk of diseases caused by blood clots by a factor of 25 – 40%. This includes stroke, heart attack, and peripheral vascular disease.
Bullet It has been found to decrease the risk of complications of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and aging.
Bullet This amount of alcohol has been found to increase the levels of HDL cholesterol, which is considered the “good cholesterol.”
Bullet Blood clotting factors are less likely to cause clots in those who drink alcohol.

Negative Effects of Alcohol

Certainly, heavy drinking is a problem and is one of the top causes of preventable injury and death in the US.

Alcohol plays a role in nearly 50% of all motor vehicle accidents; can damage the heart and liver in large doses; causes alcohol dependence; and increases the risk of birth defects, depression, relationship problems, and breast and other cancers.

Alcohol has been found to inhibit the absorption of folate, an important B vitamin for embryonic spinal cord growth. This is partly why alcohol is not recommended during pregnancy. This folate disruption because of alcohol consumption is also thought to be the reason why alcohol can increase the risk of colon, breast, and other cancers. People who consume at least 600 mcg per day of folate can decrease some of the negative effects of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol in moderation has been shown to help those with type 2 diabetes and gallstones. This disappears when alcohol is consumed too heavily. A drink after a meal might aid in digestion of the meal, and people who drink only small amounts of alcohol tend to be less stressed than those who do not drink. The trick is to spread out the alcohol consumption over the week. Binging on alcohol at any time negates the positive effects it could have.

Heavy Drinking and Alcoholism

Heavy drinking poses numerous dangers for the body. Easily comparable to poison, it directly causes chronic disease, like cirrhosis, and negatively effects important organs and processes in the body.

Bullet Alcoholism can cause alcoholic hepatitis, which is inflammation of the liver, and cirrhosis, which is irreversible scarring of the liver tissue, and may lead to premature death.
Bullet It can increase blood pressure and cause cardiovascular damage to the heart.
Bullet Cancers of the breast, mouth, pharynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, and larynx are linked to heavy alcohol intake.
Bullet Those who both drink and smoke are at an even higher risk of these diseases.
Bullet Alcohol consumption that reaches the level of being an alcoholic can lead to violent crime, automobile accidents, and social problems.
Bullet Those who drink in moderate to heavy amounts can have sleep disruption, cloudy judgment, and medication interactions.
Bullet It can be addictive in some people, especially those who have a family history of alcoholism.
Bullet Heavy alcohol use has been found in several studies to increase the risk of developing breast cancer in women. Those who drank more than two drinks per day suffered from a greater risk of breast cancer by a factor of 41%. Taking folate seems to counteract this negative effect, however.

Who Becomes an Alcoholic?

Both genes and environmental issues play a role in who becomes an alcoholic and who does not. Genes for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase seem to play a specific role. Those who have one type of alcohol dehydrogenase develop less heart disease than those who have another type of alcohol dehydrogenase in their bodies.

The benefits and risks of alcohol consumption vary with a person’s age. Younger people have less benefit and more risk, especially among pregnant women and those who drive drunk. Older women might benefit from drinking one alcoholic beverage per day, and older men might benefit from drinking two per day.

How To Make Sense of It All

Alcohol has complex effects on the body, so it is difficult to make statements as to whether or not you should consider alcohol helpful or harmful.

If you are at a low risk for heart disease and cancer, it might not pay at all to drink alcohol. If you are at risk for addiction, no amount of alcohol can prevent you from eventually developing an addiction to the drug in some cases.

If you currently do not consume alcohol, most experts recommend you do not start drinking just for medicinal purposes. People at a high risk for heart disease or breast cancer because of family history or lifestyle options might choose to drink a moderate amount of alcohol every day.

If you do decide to drink alcohol, make sure to consume at least 600 mcg of folic acid along with the alcohol so you do not become folate deficient.

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