Despite the fact that it’s legal, alcohol is one of the most lethal drugs available in the United States. It is the fourth leading cause of preventable death and, as a central nervous system depressant, you can die from alcohol withdrawal.
Despite this, most people don’t die of alcoholism, and the harm caused by drinking often doesn’t show up for many years. However, once symptoms do emerge, they’ve usually become a serious health problem.
Today we’ll review five of the top ten health risks from drinking and, in a later post, we’ll review numbers six through ten.
1. Liver Disease
The liver weighs about three pounds and is the largest solid organ in the body. It has many life-sustaining functions including:
- Manufacturing bile, which we need to digest food
- Manufacturing blood proteins that help in clotting, oxygen transport and immune system function
- Getting rid of harmful substances in the bloodstream including drugs and alcohol
- Breaking down saturated fat and producing cholesterol
Alcohol metabolizes mainly in the liver, which is why the liver is especially susceptible to alcoholic liver disease. The severity of this disease is dependent on how much and for how long someone drinks. At least 90% of people who drink heavily will develop alcoholic fatty liver, an early and reversible consequence of excessive alcohol use. Chronic drinking enhances the liver’s natural breakdown of fats and this results in the excess that ends up accumulating in the liver.
Some chronic drinkers experience long-term inflammation or alcoholic hepatitis, which often causes scar tissue to develop. Over the course of time, the scarring can completely invade the liver and cause it to become hard and nodular. About 40% of cases of alcoholic hepatitis will develop into cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis is basically when healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly. If the liver is unable to perform its life-sustaining functions, multiple organ failure and death will occur. Unfortunately, among those who do develop liver disease, symptoms often develop only after extensive damage has already been done. According to the National Institutes of Health, cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death by disease.
Pancreatitis is a very painful inflammation of the pancreas that often requires hospitalization. A five to ten-year period of chronic drinking typically precedes an initial alcoholic pancreatitis attack.
Chronic alcohol consumption also contributes to the risk of developing different cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum and breast. Both acetaldehyde and the alcohol itself are implicated as the causative agents for the heightened risk.
Simultaneous cigarette or tobacco use, which is common among drinkers, increases alcohol’s effects on the risk for cancers of the upper digestive and respiratory tract.
4. Ulcers and Gastrointestinal Problems
Stomach ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn and inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis) are also common byproducts of chronic alcohol use.
Alcohol is quite toxic to the digestive tract as it passes through. Overall, the gastrointestinal tract sustains a considerable amount of damage from alcohol and can also lead to dangerous internal bleeding from enlarged veins in the esophagus.
5. Immune System Dysfunction
Alcohol causes a drop in the white blood cell count with each episode of heavy drinking reducing the body’s ability to ward off infections for up to 24 hours after the body’s exposure to alcohol. Drinking too much also weakens the immune system, making the body vulnerable to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, common colds and pneumonia.
Tune in soon to read about the rest of the top health risks from heavy drinking. If you believe you or someone you love has a problem with drinking or drugs, call your local drug and alcohol treatment agency to ask for a free assessment or call New Bridge Foundation’s admissions office at (866) 772-8491 .