Health information on alcohol can be confusing. Studies have suggested that moderate drinking may prevent heart disease. But this is balanced by the many potential health problems of over use.
The amount of alcohol consumed is the most important factor. All researchers agree that any health benefits from alcohol are derived only from low to moderate use, usually defined as no more than one drink per day for non-pregnant women and two drinks per day for men. (One drink is equal to 12 oz of beer, 4 to 5 oz of wine, or 1 oz of hard liquor.) These are the maximum amounts considered generally safe, but since alcohol affects individuals differently, your personal “safe” amount may be lower, depending on your genetics, sex, weight and health problems, addiction tendencies and medications.
The negative effects of alcohol can be made worse if you use tobacco. For certain gastrointestinal-tract cancers, the combination of tobacco use and alcohol appears to be particularly dangerous. The risk of getting esophageal and laryngeal cancer for someone who uses tobacco and drinks alcohol is greater than you would predict if you just added the two risk factors together. Instead, each of these two habits magnifies the harm caused by the other.
As far as your GI tract is concerned, there are many potential hazards to drinking alcohol:
The liver acts as a filter and waste-treatment plant for many substances that pass through the body. It is a place where drugs or alcohol are metabolized, or broken down. The liver has a high-risk job; in the process of breaking down different substances it can sometimes create harmful chemicals and can be injured from this exposure. When alcohol is consumed in small amounts by people with normal livers, it is easily processed and metabolized. However, alcohol consumed in large amounts can generate toxic byproducts as it is broken down. These toxins can accumulate and damage the liver.
Alcohol consumed in large amounts is one substance that can generate toxic byproducts as it is broken down, and these toxins can accumulate and damage the liver. Alcohol consumption also interferes with the normal breakdown of certain medications within your body, so usual doses of these medicines can become unsafe. An important example of this is the use of acetaminophen (Tylenol). Acetaminophen must be adjusted to modest doses in order to account for alcohol exposure; otherwise, a portion of the medicine can be converted to a highly toxic chemical before it is cleared from the body. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the likelihood that your liver will experience damage as it processes the alcohol.
Ongoing damage within the liver can cause alcoholic hepatitis — inflammation of liver tissue with or without symptoms of nausea and vomiting and yellowing of the skin and eyes. Harm from alcohol alternatively may result in fatty liver, a deposit of fat tissue within the liver that usually causes no symptoms but can progress to cause serious liver scarring (cirrhosis). Damage done by alcohol is reversible only if drinking is stopped at an early stage. The liver has the ability to regenerate to some degree, but once the damage causes scarring and cirrhosis of the liver, it is irreversible. Cirrhosis can ultimately lead to liver failure, which is fatal unless a liver transplant can be performed.
Cancers of the GI Tract
Alcohol has been called a co-carcinogen because it works in conjunction with tobacco use to multiply risks for certain cancers. If a person who uses tobacco also drinks, the chances that mouth or esophageal cancer will develop are increased. In fact, over 80% of squamous cell cancers of the mouth and esophagus (as well as pharynx and larynx) can be accounted for by tobacco use and alcohol consumption. Liver damage from heavy drinking also can increase the risk of liver cancer.
Gastritis and Heartburn (GERD)
Alcohol can result in generalized, painful irritation of the stomach lining, called gastritis. When you drink, some alcohol is absorbed almost immediately through the lining of the stomach — which is why drinking on an empty stomach will affect you more than drinking after a meal.
Alcohol weakens or relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscular ring at the entrance to the stomach that is normally closed except during burps and swallows. Heartburn can develop when the loosened lower esophageal sphincter allows acidic stomach contents to flow upwards into the esophagus, irritating and damaging the lining.
Alcohol can create inflammation within the pancreas, called pancreatitis. This organ manufactures digestive juices. When it becomes inflamed, the pancreas can unleash a collection of enzymes that are capable of digesting not just food but also human tissue, causing additional pain and inflammation. Because it is a cascade of inflammation, pancreatitis always has the potential to become very severe and life threatening.
Alcohol consumption can distract a person from regular meals, and it can take away an appetite for nourishing foods. Irritation of the intestine from alcohol reduces the ability of your intestine to absorb nutrients and vitamins. For all these reasons, heavy drinkers often lack adequate supplies of essential vitamins and minerals, such as folate, thiamine, magnesium, and phosphate.