The many ways alcohol affects your health

April 10, 2024 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • Having more than four alcoholic drinks a day for women and more than five alcoholic drinks a day for men — or eight drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men — is considered excessive drinking.

  • Drinking more alcohol than is recommended can have many negative physical and mental health impacts.

  • There are trained professionals and resources that can help if you want to cut back on drinking or eliminate it completely.

The many ways alcohol affects your health

Two or three drinks after a busy day may not seem like much. You might think that it’s not cause for alarm and maybe even well deserved. But two or three can add up over the course of a week. And what started as not much can suddenly become a big deal for your health.

Excessive drinking is defined as having more than four drinks in a day for women, or eight drinks a week, and more than five drinks in a day for men, or 15 drinks a week. Any more than that can cause significant physical and mental health problems, as well as detrimental effects on your emotional well-being and personal relationships.

The good news is that understanding alcohol’s dangers is half the battle, and there are plenty of reasons for hope if you’re looking for help with alcohol-related issues.

The physical effects

Alcohol can harm nearly every system in the body, with the risk increasing the more you drink, says Seth Workentine, M.D., an addiction medicine fellow at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Alcohol can also weaken your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight disease.

Here are a few of the physical problems excessive drinking — either on a single occasion (e.g., binge drinking) or over a long period of time — can cause to your organs:


Alcohol affects the pathways the brain uses to communicate with the rest of the body. Heavy drinking can cause:

  • Confusion
  • Long-term disruptions in behavior and mood
  • Long-term nerve pain or numbness
  • Problems with coordination


In the heart, excessive alcohol consumption can cause problems, including:

  • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Cardiomyopathy (stretching of the heart muscle)
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure (also called hypertension)
  • Stroke


One of the liver’s main jobs is to break down poisonous substances like alcohol. Excessive drinking can lead to:

  • Cirrhosis, or chronic liver damage
  • Fibrosis, or scar tissue
  • Liver cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Liver failure
  • Steatosis, or fatty liver

Alcohol and cancer

Your body breaks down alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which damages DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage. Damaged DNA can cause a cell to begin growing out of control and, eventually, develop into cancer.  

Alcohol is linked to several types of cancer, including:

  • Breast
  • Colon and rectal (colorectal)
  • Esophageal
  • Mouth and throat
  • Liver

Alcohol poisoning

One of the liver’s jobs is to keep alcohol from entering the bloodstream. But when you drink a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, your liver may not be able to keep up. That can cause parts of your brain to shut down, leading to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, confusion and abdominal pain.

Most people who experience alcohol poisoning — also called an alcohol overdose — need to go to the hospital for treatment, Dr. Workentine says.

“Unfortunately, the body can only get rid of alcohol at a certain rate, so the treatment for alcohol poisoning is largely supportive,” he says, like keeping you hydrated and comfortable while your body processes the toxins.

The mental effects

The connection between alcohol and mental health is often an interesting paradox, Dr. Workentine says. That’s because some people start drinking to help relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety or stress. Initially, it may feel like alcohol is helping. Eventually, though, using alcohol to improve mental health tends to backfire.

“There’s a saying that there’s no bad thing that alcohol can’t make worse,” Dr. Workentine says. “And I think the evidence has born that out time after time.”

Alcohol also affects your sleep. It can keep you from getting into the REM stage, which plays a key role in brain development and emotional processing.

“People wake up tired and unable to deal with daily life stressors as well as they usually would,” Dr. Workentine says. “That’s when anxiety and depression can really set in.”

The social effects

Alcohol doesn’t only affect your health, though. It also impacts the relationships you have with others. In fact, its impact on relationships is one of the criteria doctors use to diagnose an alcohol use disorder, Dr. Workentine says.

“When people get to the point that alcohol is affecting their relationships, it can be a sign that they’re struggling with addiction,” he says. “That can take many forms — from a loved one expressing concern about alcohol use to a relationship ending because of it.”

Dr. Workentine adds: “Someone with alcohol use disorder is someone who’s continuing to use a substance despite consequences.”

The consequences are typically broken down into three main buckets:

  • How the brain changes with use, such as experiencing withdrawal symptoms or cravings
  • The person’s relationship with themselves, which typically looks like replacing other hobbies or activities with alcohol
  • The person’s relationship with other people, including the breakdown of relationships due to alcohol use

Alcohol and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was a significant contributor to America’s alcohol problem because it took away human connection for many people, Dr. Workentine says.

“During the pandemic, people were forced to isolate, and they looked for a way to fill that void,” he says. “Substance use, especially alcohol use, greatly increased as a consequence.”

American alcohol sales spiked by nearly 3% during the first year of the pandemic — the largest increase in more than 50 years. Alcohol-related deaths also increased by 29% from 2016 to 2021.

Still, Dr. Workentine notes that he’s recently seen signs of a cultural reversal.

“There are so many new non-alcoholic beers out there right now, and you’re hearing more and more about people who are curious about sobriety,” he says. “I think some people, especially younger generations, are realizing the negative impacts alcohol can have on their lives and taking steps to improve their wellness.”

Drinking in moderation

For people who choose to drink alcohol in moderation, Dr. Workentine recommends two main things: making sure you stay hydrated (drinking a glass of water between drinks, for example) and making sure you’re eating.

“Often, the most negative outcomes of alcohol use come about because people aren’t eating while they drink,” Dr. Workentine says. “We need micronutrients from food to keep our nerves, liver and brain healthy and working as they should. Micronutrients can also help reduce the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the body, which is always a good thing.”

Cutting back or cutting out alcohol

If you’re looking to reduce the amount of alcohol you use or eliminate it from your life, addiction medicine specialists and counselors can help. They’re trained to support people who want to break their alcohol dependence. They can also support those who may be considering cutting back on alcohol use but aren’t yet ready to take that first step.

“It’s easy for someone who doesn’t have a substance use disorder to cut back,” Dr. Workentine says. “For them, it’s often as simple as drinking more water and finding other enjoyable hobbies to keep them active, busy and engaged. Sometimes, that’s all people need. But it’s harder for someone who has an addiction. These are the people I recommend seeking professional support.”

Resources that can help

Below are links to national resources that can help people combat substance use:

Finding hope

Recovering from alcohol’s negative effects, especially alcohol use disorder, can be a hard road, and it’s not always a straight line, Dr. Workentine says, but the main takeaway should be hope.

“We have a lot of good providers who care about their patients, a lot of good resources and a lot of good medications that work really well,” he says. “People don’t usually get anything they do in life right on the first try. It often takes a few tries. So don’t get down on yourself. Stay hopeful.”

Contributing caregiver

Seth Workentine, M.D. is an addiction medicine fellow at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.

Find a doctor

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder and needs help finding treatment, you can find care close to you using our provider directory. You can also find more information about our substance use services on our website.  

Download the Providence app

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Related resources

Is COVID-19 making women drink more? Research says yes.

The warning signs you have an alcohol problem

National Recovery Month highlights hope for addiction

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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