8 Subtle Ways Alcohol Is Hurting Your Health

Feeling down, tired or broke after having a few drinks? Learn to recognize the not-so-obvious ways that alcohol can affect your overall quality of life.

Medically reviewed in November 2020

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Have you ever felt overly tired or a little flushed after having a few drinks? Have you ever spent more money than you intended, or done things you regret after a night out drinking with friends? Is your daily wine habit interfering with your weight loss goals? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you’re likely not alone.

Keep in mind, alcohol’s health effects vary from one person to the next. How it will affect you depends on some individual risk factors, including your DNA, lifestyle, age, health and family medical history. Not exceeding the daily recommended limits on alcohol intake (up to two drinks for men, and no more than one for women) could help you avoid or minimize some potential downsides of drinking.

But aside from the well-known health risks associated with alcohol intake, drinking has some other subtle consequences that can have an impact on your physical and mental well-being.

We spoke to Keith Roach, MD, Sharecare’s chief medical officer and member of its Scientific Advisory Board, to learn more about some indirect and possibly surprising ways that alcohol can affect your health.

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It can alter your mood and judgment

When you drink, the communication pathways in your brain are disrupted, which can affect your mood and behavior along with your coordination and judgment.

Having a glass of wine or a beer may make you feel more relaxed, warm and happy, but as soon as you start drinking, your judgment is affected. You may do and say things you wouldn't normally do or say. With lower inhibitions, you may also be tempted to drink more than you initially intended.

If you keep drinking, you’ll probably get sleepy. If you have too much alcohol, you might even pass out, start slurring your words or have trouble walking. That’s because alcohol depresses the system that keeps us awake and alert.

“Most people use alcohol as a way of relaxing and breaking down social barriers. In medicine we refer to this as disinhibition, which in some cases can be a good thing. It can enable people to talk to each other and be more honest about things,” Roach says. “Unfortunately, many people are using alcohol to self-medicate for underlying mental health disorders.”

Drinking to cope with anxiety or symptoms of depression can backfire. Over time, chronic alcohol abuse could contribute to mental health conditions like depression.

For those already taking antidepressant medications, drinking alcohol can be particularly dangerous. When mixed with antidepressants, alcohol’s effects may be heightened, resulting in even more drowsiness, dizziness, coordination issues and decreased alertness. The combination of alcohol and certain antidepressants could also prevent these medications from working as they should, allowing symptoms of depression or anxiety to worsen.

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It’s a financial drain

From wine to beer and everything in between, alcohol costs money. While prices vary from state to state, you can expect to pay at least $8 or $9 for a six-pack of light, domestic beer or at least $10 for a bottle of wine. If you’re ordering drinks at a restaurant or buying top shelf liquor, strong craft beers or fine wines in a store, you should expect to pay much more than that. The more you drink, the more you’re spending.

There are some other steep, less obvious costs associated with alcohol use. Drinking can lead to missed work days and less productivity due to hangovers. There is also a financial toll associated with alcohol-related injuries, trips to the ER and car accidents. Over time, these expenses can add up. In fact, heavy alcohol use, including binge drinking (for men, tossing back five or more drinks in one sitting, four for women), cost the U.S. $249 billion in 2010. That’s the equivalent of about $2.05 per drink. And there’s no sign that these trends are improving. Between 2006 and 2014, alcohol-related ER visits surged by nearly 50 percent.

If you want to assess how much you or your family is spending on alcohol over time, consider using the National Institute of Health’s alcohol spending calculator. You can also track your alcohol intake with the Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android).

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It can lead to weight gain

Every day in the United States, the typical adult swigs an average of nearly 100 calories from alcoholic beverages, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A strawberry daquiri may be an obvious calorie-bomb, but you may be surprised to learn that your nightly glass of wine may be tacking on more calories to your healthy eating plan than you realize. It’s also important to understand that calories from alcohol are “empty,” Roach explains. Empty calories, he warns, don’t have nutritional value and they don’t help you feel full or satisfied, which can lead to weight gain.

Calories also increase based on alcohol content, so a stronger beer or wine will have more calories. Many darker ales and stouts have a lot more calories than a light white wine. For example, a 12-ounce lager contains 150 calories on average, while a 5-ounce glass of sauvignon blanc has about 100.

This is another important reason why portion control is key. You should be particularly mindful of how much you’re actually drinking, especially while you’re dining out. One beverage at a restaurant could be as much as two servings and can include extra calories from add-ins, like juices and soda.

If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to consider the calories you’re drinking—even if you’re only having one glass of wine each night. Over the course of one week, that’s more than 700 calories. Opting for something non-alcoholic and low-cal, such as seltzer, can make it easier to lose weight, Roach advises.

It’s also important to remember that if you’re drinking, you’re also more likely to make worse food choices, opting for things that are high in unhealthy fats and loaded with added sugars. Over time, these extra calories can add up.

If you’re curious to learn how many alcoholic calories you’re consuming, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, has an easy guide.

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You might lose sleep

Alcohol can make you feel drowsy, but it isn’t a sleep aid. Nevertheless, up to 20 percent of Americans use alcohol to fall asleep. But drinking can actually have the opposite effect, resulting in disrupted, poor-quality sleep.

If you have a drink or two before bedtime, it could interfere with your natural body clock or circadian rhythm. Interfering with your normal sleep-wake cycle could cause you to wake up earlier than usual.

Drinking can also interrupt rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the most restorative phase of sleep, Roach cautions. If your REM sleep is disrupted, you’re not going to feel as refreshed or sharp the next day, he explains.

A May 2018 Finnish study, published in the journal JMIR Mental Health, examined the effects of alcohol on the autonomic nervous system during sleep. The autonomic nervous system has two main parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. While the sympathetic nervous system gets the body ready for physical activity, the parasympathetic relaxes the body, slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure.

For the study, researchers measured the heart rate variability, or the variation in the amount of time between each heartbeat, of more than 4,000 people between the ages of 18 and 65 years old. They found that drinking disrupts cardiovascular relaxation during sleep, increasing sympathetic regulation and reducing parasympathetic regulation. This resulted in insufficient recovery. In fact, moderate drinking (about three drinks on average) decreased the volunteers’ restorative sleep quality by 24 percent, when researchers assessed the time between the participant’s heartbeats. Drinking more than that was even more problematic, leading to a 39.2 percent drop in restorative sleep quality.

Alcohol could also affect your breathing since it relaxes your throat muscles. This can increase the risk of snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that interrupts your breathing when upper airway blockages interfere with airflow.

It’s also important to remember that alcohol is a diuretic. So, if you’ve been drinking late in the day or in the evening, you’ll likely have to wake up and use the bathroom during the night.

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Your skin may suffer

Drinking could increase your risk of certain skin problems, such as rosacea—a condition that can cause redness, breakouts, irritation and swelling. Skin issues can arise if you drink alcohol, even if you haven’t had to cope with them before.

A large April 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that alcohol, specifically white wine and liquor, was associated with an increased risk of rosacea in women. The study’s authors admit that more research is needed to explain this link. They speculate however, that alcohol may contribute to rosacea by weakening the immune system and widening blood vessels.

As you drink, an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase helps the liver break down alcohol. If you’re lacking this enzyme, which is most common among those of Eastern Asian descent, the toxins from the alcohol can build up within your body. This can cause your face to become flushed. These same toxins encourage enlargement and dilation of your blood vessels, which can make you sweat as well.

Other research suggests there’s a correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and psoriasis. Alcohol prevents the immune system from functioning properly, which could lead to an increase in inflammation, infection and the growth of skin cells.

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You’re more likely to get hurt (or hurt others)

Excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths each year between 2006 and 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. During this same time period, heavy drinking was also responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among adults between 20 and 64 years old, according to the CDC.

As you drink, the amount of alcohol in your system increases, which raises your blood alcohol concentration level. Alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body; it can start to have an effect within 10 minutes.

“Alcohol is one of the few substances that can get absorbed through the stomach,” Roach explains. “From the stomach it goes right into your bloodstream to your liver and then to your brain, which is the main area that we're concerned about having adverse effects.”

Even one or two drinks will have almost immediate effects on your judgment. The more alcohol you consume, the more your coordination, balance and decision-making skills will be affected.

“Your muscle coordination becomes impaired with even moderate amounts of alcohol," Roach says. “And judgment impairment can occur even before motor impairment does.” That means it’s likely—even with one or two glasses of wine— you’re okay physically, but you might take risks you wouldn’t usually take, he adds.

Binge drinking is especially risky, making you much more likely to suffer a serious or fatal injury, such as falling, getting burned, drowning or being involved in a car accident, according to the CDC.

Each day in the United States, 29 people die in car crashes that involve a drunk driver—that’s one death every 50 minutes. In 2016, alcohol was responsible for 28 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Drinking alcohol also increases the likelihood that you’ll engage in risky sexual behaviors like unprotected sex, or sex with multiple partners, which can have serious and lasting health implications.

You’re also more likely to become involved in violent situations, including intimate partner violence like rape or verbal and physical abuse if you’ve been drinking. In fact, more than half of all violent sexual crimes involve alcohol consumption by one or more involved. Bottom line: drinking not only puts your health at risk but also the wellbeing and safety of others. Two national surveys, involving  8,750 U.S. adults, found that about 21 percent of women and nearly 23 percent of men are hurt by the alcohol intake of another person each year. In other words, the study’s authors pointed out, some 53 million adults suffer “secondhand effects of alcohol” annually. The findings published online in June 2019 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs revealed these indirect harms include harassment, vandalism, physical aggression, car accidents and financial strain.  

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You’re more likely to smoke

Smoking and drinking often go hand in hand. An estimated 46 million adults have used both alcohol and tobacco in the last year, reports the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Meanwhile, some 6.2 million adults admit to having both alcohol use disorder and nicotine dependence.

While the numbers are startling, the correlation between alcohol and nicotine use is not all that surprising, according to Roach. “Unhealthy behaviors like to covary,” he says. Simply put, drinking is a risk factor for smoking and smoking is a risk factor for drinking.

On the flip side however, tackling one of these issues could lead to more positive lifestyle changes. “Sometimes, all it takes is one discrete change in behavior, like cutting down on drinking for others to follow,” Roach points out.

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You may spend more time at the dentist

Alcohol can increase your risk for certain head and neck cancers, including forms of the disease that affect the mouth, throat and voice box. The more you drink, the higher your risks. But drinking has other short-term consequences for your oral health.

One of the most immediate effects is dry mouth. Alcohol causes your salivary glands to produce less saliva. Aside from the discomfort associated with dry mouth, the condition can lead to bad breath and a sore tongue or throat. You may also have trouble swallowing, speaking or chewing. Over time, dry mouth can increase your risk for tooth decay and gum disease.

Heavy drinkers, in particular, have an increased risk of developing a serious gum infection, called periodontitis, which can damage the gums and jawbone. A 2017 study of 152 adults, with an average age of 35, found those who were dependent on alcohol had a higher risk for tooth decay, periodontitis and mouth sores than the nonalcoholic control group. These findings build on previous research published in 2015 in the Journal of Periodontology, which found that adults who drank heavily had higher levels of a type of bacteria that causes periodontitis.

Over time, acidic alcoholic drinks, like wine, can also lead to cavities and the erosion of tooth enamel, which make teeth more susceptible to damage.

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Rethinking your alcohol intake

If you don’t drink already, it’s best not to start. If you do choose to drink, stick to the recommended daily limits, or no more than two drinks per day for men or one for women in order to minimize your risk for alcohol-related health issues.

If you’re concerned about how much you drink and want to curb your alcohol intake, here are some strategies that could help:

  • Try a new activity: If you’re getting together with friends, avoid going to a bar. Consider some alternative activities that may help you avoid the temptation to drink, such as taking a hike or seeing a movie.
  • Steer clear of triggers: If certain people encourage you to drink, or if being in a specific environment triggers you to toss a few back, try surrounding yourself with positive influences. It’s also a good idea to avoid the places that remind you of drinking.
  • Learn to say no: It can be easy to give in when someone offers you a drink but stick to your resolution. If you’re trying to abstain, respond quickly with a clear and simple “no, thanks” and, if possible, avoid eye contact.
  • Be prepared for urges: There may be moments when you want to drink. If you feel tempted to break your resolution, it could help to remind yourself about why you want to cut back. You could even write your intentions down on paper and store this note in your purse or wallet. You can also discuss your feelings with a loved one or pick up a new hobby that will help distract you until your desire to drink passes.

If you recognize the signs of binge drinking, heavy alcohol use or alcohol use disorder, it’s important to seek help from your doctor or another trained healthcare professional. You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP for treatment facilities and support groups and other resources that are available in your area.

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