Alcohol does many things to the body. What diseases are caused by alcohol? Read on to find out.
1. Respiratory Infections, Particularly Pneumonia
We start with something you probably wouldn’t expect to see in a list like this: respiratory infections, particularly pneumonia.
Now, how on earth could alcohol use increase the risk of pneumonia? It actually does this via at least two mechanisms.
Firstly, it alters the bacterial flora in the oral cavity and pharynx, leading to a proliferation of unhealthy bacteria. It also impairs the lungs’ ability to defend against harmful bacteria.
A 2018 meta-analysis by the University of Nottingham looked at all the published research between alcohol consumption and pneumonia, going back to 1985. The result? Relative to non-drinkers, heavy drinkers had an 83% increased risk of pneumonia.
In the US, pneumonia is currently the 9th leading cause of death, so even if you look at absolute rather than relative risk, this is pretty significant.
Heavy drinkers also fare worse when they come down with pneumonia than non-drinkers. They tend to present with worse symptoms, often require mechanical ventilation, and are far more likely to die.
So, when you eat, especially foods rich in carbs, your body breaks them down into sugar, which is then released into the bloodstream. In response, your pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin.
The function of insulin is to transport sugar from the blood into the tissues. Once in the tissues, it will either be used straight away as energy or stored for future use.
Over time, and especially if you overdo it with junk food rich in processed carbs, your body cannot ferry the sugar from the blood into the tissue.
The cells in your tissues simply stop responding to the insulin. The blood sugar levels stay permanently high, which doctors call insulin resistance and is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes.
Alcohol increases the risk of type 2 diabetes in previously healthy individuals and worsens the blood sugar levels of those who already have diabetes.
It does this through a variety of mechanisms:
- Contributes to excess calorie intake and obesity
- Disturbs the metabolism of carbohydrates and glucose
- Damages the pancreas, and
- Impairs the healthy functioning of the liver.
Which, sadly, brings us to the next condition on the list.
3. Liver Disease
Alcohol is an evolutionary novelty. We simply haven’t evolved to consume alcoholic drinks. Just like we haven’t evolved to inject heroin or sniff cocaine, it’s the same thing.
Because it’s an evolutionary novelty, our bodies can’t get rid of it safely. And the organ that suffers the most is the liver. The liver is the primary organ where our bodies break down alcohol. And it breaks it down into a very toxic molecule called acetaldehyde. This is actually more toxic than alcohol itself.
The liver then has to eliminate the acetaldehyde, which converts to another less active metabolite called acetate.
Things are made worse because alcohol is a diuretic that causes increased urination. This dehydrates the liver, at the same time that it’s forced to work overtime in the first place.
There is only so much of this the liver can handle, and the acetaldehyde causes the liver to scar over time. This type of scarring is called fibrosis. Over time, healthy normal liver tissue is progressively replaced by scar tissue.
Alcoholic liver disease progresses through 3 stages.
The first is so-called alcoholic fatty liver, where excess fat starts to build up in the liver cells. There are few, if any, symptoms at this point other than perhaps some fatigue or mild aches in your abdomen. About 90% of heavy drinkers suffer from fatty liver, but the condition is generally reversible if the person stops drinking alcohol.
The next stage is alcoholic hepatitis, where the liver damage progresses and it becomes inflamed. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, and jaundice.
The last stage is cirrhosis. At this point, most of the healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue until it eventually shrinks and gives out completely. The disease is non-reversible, and a diagnosis of cirrhosis probably means you have a few years to live.
Like all the other diseases in this top six, the risk of liver disease is directly linked to the duration and intensity of drinking. The longer and heavier you have been drinking alcohol, the more at risk you are.
4. Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)
Hypertension, the medical term for high blood pressure, affects about one out of every three American adults. Medical authorities call it the “silent killer.” And for good reason.
While it doesn’t give any immediately noticeable symptoms, it puts people at a higher risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.
In a nutshell, if you have high blood pressure, chances are you will live a shorter life. On the other hand, reversing your high blood pressure is one of the most efficient steps to extend your life expectancy.
According to a report by the NIH, heavy female drinkers have double the risk of developing hypertension compared to non-drinkers. For male drinkers, this rises to four times the risk.
The relationship between alcohol and hypertension is now so established that the disease has its own name: alcohol-induced hypertension.
Alcohol increases the risk of hypertension through multiple mechanisms.
Firstly, it unbalances the central nervous system, which in turn influences the activity of the heart. It also messes with the peripheral nervous system, increases cortisol levels, and restricts the blood vessels by interfering with their calcium ions.
Having said all this, it’s not going to come as a surprise that the best way to treat alcohol-induced hypertension is to stop drinking. After that, you can make the other necessary lifestyle changes: losing excess weight, exercising, quitting smoking, and eating more healthily.
In other words, all the things that you are far less likely to be doing while you’re still drinking.
5. Mental Health Disorders (Depression, Psychosis)
The relationship between drinking and mental health disorders is so strong that when you listen to the figures, they are scary. Some researchers estimate that one-third of patients with psychiatric issues have alcohol or other substance abuse issues.
On the flip side, over a third of alcohol-dependent patients also suffer from at least one psychiatric condition. The most common ones are anxiety disorders, followed by depression.
Now, many of you at this point might be thinking. Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second. The fact that drinking and anxiety/depression go hand in hand does not prove that alcohol causes them.
It could very well be that anxious and depressed people start to drink to cope. And I’m not going to deny that this is often the case because it obviously is.
We saw that with the recent lockdowns, for example. When millions of people lost their jobs and livelihoods, the rates of alcohol abuse just skyrocketed. People turned to alcohol to relieve the pain and survive the rough patch.
But there is no doubt that it also works the other way around. That alcohol causes anxiety and depression.
And it does this in at least two different ways.
Firstly, heavy drinking and chronic alcohol consumption causes so-called neuroadaptation. What this means is that your brain literally rewires itself. And one of the main reasons is that alcohol mimics the action of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter called GABA.
This is one of the messenger molecules different parts of your brain use to communicate with each other, and it’s heavily involved in regulating anxiety and mood. Most of the prescription drugs for the treatment of anxiety disorders target the GABA networks.
Every time you have an alcoholic drink, you are unnaturally stimulating the GABA receptors in your brain. If you drink heavily daily, your brain anticipates and responds to this by downregulating or downplaying its own natural GABA activity.
In other words, your brain becomes trained to receive a certain amount of exogenous GABA stimulation every day. And when your next drink is overdue by a few hours, let alone a few days, your brain simply cannot cope. The result? Anxiety.
This is no theory, by the way. You can literally see these neuroadaptations with things like functional MRI. And sadly for some people, though they get better after stopping, they can still be detected for years afterward.
So alcohol intake directly affects your brain physiology and literally makes it more susceptible to anxiety and depression. But there is a second way alcohol causes these states. And that is the direct negative impact on the person’s life.
The stress over having to hide the drinking from friends and relatives, the effect on workplace performance and deteriorating relationships with significant others adds up over time.
And, at their core, anxiety, and depression are evolved responses to socially stressful or threatening situations. It is impossible that your social and financial situation can deteriorate to the degree it usually does without your becoming anxious and depressed.
When you actually think about it, about how destructive this poison is and what it does to people’s lives, it’s a testament to the human body’s incredible coping ability that more than half of heavy drinkers don’t develop anxiety and depression.
Alcohol is an established carcinogen. In other words, the evidence is so strong that there is no scientific debate over this anymore. It is case closed.
The public doesn’t generally know about it, but authorities like the CDC, the NIH, and the American Cancer Society all describe it as a known carcinogen that greatly increases the risk of certain cancers.
Scientists don’t understand exactly how alcohol promotes the appearance of tumors. They suspect it might be a combination of the oxidative stress alcohol causes on the body, the harmful waste generated during its breakdown in the liver, or the fact that it impairs the body’s ability to break down and absorb certain vitamins.
People who drink and smoke are especially at risk of developing certain cancers in the mouth, throat, and esophagus.
But even for non-smokers, drinking increases your chances of developing one of the following kinds of cancers:
- Mouth and throat
- Breast cancer in women
The cancer risk is dose-dependent, meaning the more you drink, the more at-risk you are—the type of drink, whether beer, wine, or spirits, makes no difference.
Compared to the general population, heavy drinkers are over five times more likely to develop cancer of the mouth and pharynx, four times more likely to get cancer of the esophagus, and three times more likely to get liver cancer. These risks are the same for men and women.
But women who drink heavily also increase their chance of getting breast cancer by about 60%.
These risks are all lower for moderate and mild drinkers, though still higher than for the general population.
Check out this video to help inform your choices regarding alcohol going forward. For those who would like to know more, I’ve linked to the main research articles we used while researching today’s video.
I’ve also linked to a comprehensive report by the National Institutes of Health. This has compiled the data on drinkers’ excess risk for all major diseases in one neat table.
The table has separate data for men and women and also breaks it down for mild, moderate, and heavy drinkers.
And I feel obligated to clarify that we do these videos once in a while, not to scare but to educate. The program here at Soberclear doesn’t use fear – it’s just not how it works. But as your host and maybe coach, I feel ethically obligated to educate you about some of these risks because you’re certainly not going to hear about most of them from the mainstream media.