Post last updated April 29, 2016
Heavy drinking can take a significant toll on your body — and greatly impact the health of your liver.
While social drinking is commonplace, heavy and frequent use of alcohol is linked to a host of serious ailments, including cancers. Those who drink heavily are at a higher risk for:
- Liver cancer
- Mouth cancer
- Throat cancer
- Larynx (voice box) cancer
- Esophagus cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Rectal cancer
How Alcohol Affects the Liver
Alcohol has a variety of effects on the liver that range from causing acute (quick onset) inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) to fatty (steato) liver disease.
Fatty liver may be reversible at an early stage when alcohol drinking is stopped, but eventually, it develops into hepatitis.
A very severe bout of alcoholic hepatitis can quickly lead to liver failure. Steatohepatitis, a form of liver disease, can lead to progressive long-term liver toxicity and permanent damage in the form of cirrhosis — the late stage of serious liver disease. These long-term liver toxicities increase the risk of liver cancer.
How Alcohol Increases Your Risk of Liver and Other Cancers
Chronic inflammation can be a risk factor for cancer, but it is still unclear why.
One theory suggests that as cancer begins, it sends off signals that lead to inflammatory (immune) cells infiltrating the tumor. These immune cells may then recruit new blood vessels to nourish the budding tumors. Or perhaps they lay down a covering around the tumor that protects the tumor from destruction by other immune cells or cancer treatments.
Some data shows that exercise, a balanced diet, and daily aspirin use may reduce inflammation. These practices may lead to a lower risk of certain new or recurrent cancers. Always speak with your health care provider before starting any new diet or exercise plans or beginning daily aspirin use.
In addition, alcohol negatively affects the metabolism of nutrients that might help reduce cancer. Others suggest that as the body breaks down alcohol, a toxic chemical is produced which can directly affect normal cells by damaging DNA. This may lead to cancer.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
If you’re drinking too much at one time, drinking too often, or both, you may be consuming too much alcohol. “Heavy” or “at-risk” drinking for healthy men generally is considered four drinks in any day or 14 drinks in a week. Women are identified as “heavy drinkers” or “at-risk” if they consume three drinks per day or seven per week.
When it comes to liver toxicity, there’s no proven safe amount of alcohol. The side effects of alcohol occur in patients who consume significant amounts of alcohol daily or who only binge on particular days.
Binge Drinking Complications
Aside from its effects on the liver, excessive alcohol use can lead to a wide variety of other health and societal problems. The Centers for Disease Control determined that binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use. It is associated with many issues including, but not limited to:
- Alcohol poisoning, including death
- Heart and blood problems
- Birth defects
- Physical and sexual violence
Always discuss your use of alcohol with your physician and loved ones. If you think you or someone you care about is drinking too much, ask for help.