The Effects of Alcohol: How Much Is Too Much?

We live in a culture where alcohol consumption is part of our everyday life. Some of us know when to stop, but unfortunately, for many of us a hangover is a very familiar feeling. Not only can alcohol ensure a splitting headache the day after, but it also affects our motor skills and impairs our decision-making abilities.

The National Institute of Health published a report in 2015 stating that almost a third of American adults have or had Alcohol Abuse Disorder at some point in their life, but only 20% of those seek treatment. And, according to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, this is 5% higher than ten years ago, which translates to about one million more people.

Additionally, in the US there are 80,000 deaths annually due to alcohol misuse signifying the third leading cause of preventable deaths.

These statistics may be alarming! How do you know how much alcohol is too much and when to stop?

Signs That You Are Drinking Too Much

On average, women can drink a maximum of three drinks while men’s limit is four drinks. This limit varies from person to person and factors such as a person’s weight, general health, and the kind of alcoholic beverage consumed can affect how alcohol is going to affect a person’s body. Here are some signs that can help you ascertain whether you’re drinking too much or if you’re still on the safe side:

  1. If you become a daredevil. When you start to take unnecessary risks you won’t normally take, you know you’ve had one too many. This may include things like having sex with a stranger without using condoms or driving significantly above the speed limit.
  2. If you let your responsibilities slide. If you start to neglect things that are important to you due to your alcohol use, you’re in the danger zone. Examples may include skipping breakfast when it’s usually your biggest meal of the day, or not putting your kids to bed like you normally do.
  3. If the drunkenness creeps up on you. Without realizing it, you just gulped down four drinks. If you’re surprised by that, it’s a sign that you don’t know your limits and you’re probably drinking too much.
  4. If you’re a weekend warrior. If you usually stay away from alcohol during the week and only drink during weekends, it does not automatically mean you’re in the danger zone. The problem is when you binge drink over the weekends. This can raise your blood pressure and increase the likelihood of alcohol poisoning, especially in women.
  5. If you experience temporary memory loss. If you wake up with a foggy head and can’t remember how you got home or into bed, you may be in serious trouble. Forgetting parts of the previous night usually means you’re having too much.

Health Risks of Excessive Alcohol

Chronic heavy drinking has some serious health risks you should be aware of.

  1. The most common risk is probably injuries sustained due to excessive drinking, such as falling or causing a car accident.
  2. Cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol is toxic to liver cells and causes scarring of the liver, which makes the liver not function properly. The liver is critical for cleaning out the blood (i.e., removing toxins, heavy toxins, bacteria, and virus from the body), metabolizing hormones, digesting food, and many other critical functions.
  3. Alcohol causes anemia, a condition where oxygen-carrying red blood cells are extremely low. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness.
  4. Alcohol can cause dementia or memory loss. As we age, our brain shrink at a rate of  1.9% per decade. Regular alcohol consumption speeds up brain shrinkage causing memory loss, and difficulty in problem solving and planning.
  5. High blood pressure. Alcohol can disrupt the sympathetic nervous system which controls the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in response to temperature, exertion, and stress. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.
  6. Cardiovascular disease. Alcohol increases the risk of blood clots which can cause a heart attack or a stroke. It also causes cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle weakens and can ultimately fail.
  7. Increased risk of cancer. The body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is a potent carcinogen and can cause cancer in the liver, mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), breast, and colorectal region.
  8. Alcohol can cause nerve damage called neuropathy. This condition produces painful pins-and-needles, numbness in the extremities, muscle weakness, constipation, and even erectile dysfunction.
  9. Alcohol is bad for your gout. If you have an existing condition, alcohol can aggravate the symptoms. Additionally, it causes the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints which leads to gout.
  10. Pancreatitis, or an inflamed pancreas, is another condition alcohol can provoke. An inflamed pancreas interferes with the digestive process, causing symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea.
  11. Alcohol is especially bad for seizures. If you have epilepsy, alcohol can interfere with your medication. It can also trigger seizures even if you don’t have epilepsy.
  12. Infectious disease can be set in motion by alcohol since it suppresses the immune system in the liver and bone marrow. We have a hard time fighting infections making alcoholism one of the top culprits of infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and HIV/AIDS. Heavy drinking often leads to risky sex, which increases the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
  13. Alcohol and depression go hand in hand. There is an ongoing debate about which one comes first. It is true that depression can lead to overconsumption of alcohol, but research shows that drinking can also cause depression as alcohol affects your calming hormones like serotonin.

How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning or Excessive Drinking

The best way to avoid drinking too much is to know your limits and never exceed it. Here are some pointers on how to avoid alcohol poisoning and determine where your limits are:

  1. Stay hydrated. You should drink one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you consume.
  2. Eat before and during drinking. When your stomach is empty, your body absorbs alcohol at a higher rate.
  3. Stop when you’re feeling buzzed – this is a sign that your body’s detoxification pathways are becoming overwhelmed. Take a break or stop completely.

Avoid drinking when you’re feeling down or depressed, as this may lead to uncontrolled consumption. Alcohol alters the brain chemistry by lowering your serotonin levels (your feel-good hormones), and increases anxiety and stress. Address emotional health issues without involving alcohol, and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who can help you deal with your emotions.

If you or someone you love is experiencing problems with alcohol consumption, get help. It is not something you can ignore, and most people need help overcoming alcoholism.

Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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