Weird health risks of drinking alcohol
By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
January 13, 2021
Many physicians are concerned about how much their patients drink, and with good reason, because alcohol is linked to various illnesses and social stressors. Moreover, physicians are humans, too, and as such are invested in their own patterns of alcohol consumption.
We know that heavy drinking causes intoxication but it can have other unexpected effects on the body.
According to the Alcohol Research Group, “As a practitioner, one way to assess your clients’ drinking habits is to have them compare their current consumption level to how much the rest of the nation is drinking.”
In 2018, 5.1% of adults reported that they engaged in heavy drinking in the past year, 15.5% engaged in moderate drinking, 45.7% engaged in light drinking, and 33.7% did not consume alcohol, according to a survey conducted by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Of note, light drinking, according to the survey, is defined as 3 or fewer drinks per week; moderate drinking is defined as 4 to 14 drinks per week for men and 4 to 7 drinks for women; and heavy drinking is more than 14 drinks a week for men and more than 7 drinks a week for women. The survey was conducted on civilians who were noninstitutionalized.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that men of legal drinking age limit themselves to 2 or fewer drinks per day and women limit intake to 1 or fewer drinks.
Although teetotalling has its benefits, tippling in moderation can be healthy, too. Nevertheless, alcohol can do unexpected things to the body. Here are five examples.
Sulfites are a class of preservatives found in alcoholic drinks, foods, and medications. These compounds can cause intolerance in a small minority of people, manifesting as rhinitis and urticaria, as well as wheezing in those with asthma. The most dreaded allergic resulting complication is anaphylaxis, which fortunately is a rare outcome in those with sulfite allergies.
Importantly, sulfite allergy is different from allergy to sulfonamide antibiotics. Additionally, people with sulfite allergies need not avoid sulfates and sulfur, which are found in medications such as morphine sulfate and personal hygiene products, such as soap and shampoo.
As for mechanisms of allergy, some people with asthma exhibit a partial deficiency in sulfite oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down sulfur dioxide. In those with skin reactions, allergy may be IgE mediated.
Alcohol increases the risk of liver, breast, and bowel cancer. But, it can also increase the risk of cancer of the throat, mouth, larynx, and esophagus.
Although ethanol on its own is not carcinogenic, the body metabolizes it into acetaldehyde which is potentially carcinogenic according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
“Exposure to acetaldehyde has produced nasal tumors in rats and laryngeal tumors in hamsters, and exposure to malonaldehyde has produced thyroid gland and pancreatic islet cell tumors in rats,” the Agency wrote. “NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] therefore recommends that acetaldehyde and malonaldehyde be considered potential occupational carcinogens in conformance with the OSHA carcinogen policy.”
The weird thing about alcohol is that it’s not digested, but rather absorbed straight into the blood by the stomach. The rate of absorption depends on body weight, body type, and the amount of food already in the stomach, which is why it’s a good idea to start drinking only after eating a meal.
In addition to filling your belly with food, here are some other recommendations when drinking alcohol at a bar, wedding, party, restaurant, and so forth:
- Keep track of how much alcohol you are drinking by counting drinks.
- Distract yourself when drinking by playing pool or dancing. Having fun in other ways will limit alcohol consumption while keeping things light and enjoyable.
- Consider low-alcohol alternatives such as light beers and premixed drinks.
- Drink slowly and sip instead of chugging or taking shots. Put the glass down between sips. Don’t let friends or others top off your drinks because this makes it harder to track how much you’ve had to drink, often leading to overconsumption.
- Avoid eating salty snacks while drinking, such as peanuts, pretzels, or chips, which can make you more thirsty. (There’s a reason why barkeeps put out these foods.)
- Pace yourself and intersperse every second or third alcoholic drink with a nonalcoholic spacer. Don’t feel pressured to drink more and make sure to quench your thirst with a nonalcoholic drink before imbibing.
Few things are scarier than blacking out while drinking. Waking up the next day with no memory of what occurred the night before is a recipe for disaster.
Alcohol doesn’t make you forget what happened the night before. Instead, it stops your brain from making new memories while drunk. Although short-term memory works while drinking, these memories aren’t stored for the long-term. As a pretty innocuous example, someone who is drunk may remember playing darts with a friend on the night of drinking, but not have access to this memory the next day. Of note, much more dismaying things may transpire, which are never stored in long-term memory.
Diarrhea and stomach discomfort are common occurrences after a night of drinking. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Alcohol can irritate and erode your stomach lining, which makes your stomach more vulnerable to digestive juices. Excessive alcohol use is more likely to cause acute gastritis.” Similarly, excessive use of pain relievers can also lead to acute gastritis.