Danica Reiser, L.A.D.C.
Drinking alcohol is common in the U.S. About 84% of adults report drinking alcohol at some point in their lives, with 51% reporting drinking in the last month. Some people drink to feel sociable, celebrate a special occasion or to complement a meal. Others drink alcohol to escape from or avoid problems.
Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults generally means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. Examples of one drink include:
- 12 fluid ounces of beer
- 5 fluid ounces of wine
- 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (80 proof)
Moderate alcohol use may have some benefits, but heavy or binge drinking has no health benefits. It's defined as three drinks in a day or more than seven drinks a week for women and for men older than 65, and more than four drinks in a day or more than 14 drinks a week for men 65 and younger.
Here are answers to questions about the effects of heavy drinking on the body:
Q: Does drinking alcohol kill brain cells?
A: Alcohol is a neurotoxin that can disrupt communications of the brain. It also affects the functions of brain cells. This can lead to intellectual impairment, headaches, memory loss, slowed thinking, slurred speech, and trouble with balance and coordination. Excessive drinking can affect your nervous system, causing numbness and pain in your hands and feet, seizures and dementia.
Alcohol also is toxic to a developing brain during pregnancy and can cause congenital disabilities, including developmental disorders.
Q: Can drinking alcohol improve mood?
A: Short-term, moderate use can help you feel relaxed and less inhibited, but alcohol is a depressant. Heavy drinking increases your risk for depression, anxiety, irritability and rapid mood changes. This can lead to relationship problems and impaired judgment. In severe cases, heavy alcohol consumption can cause a person to hallucinate, become paranoid and lose touch with reality.
Q: Is alcohol good for heart health?
A: Research has shown that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can benefit your heart health. Studies have found that drinking alcohol in moderation increases your high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, which helps carry away and break down extra cholesterol in the blood that could otherwise block your arteries. Alcohol thins your blood, too, making it less likely that your arteries will form a blood clot. Moderate alcohol intake can lower inflammation throughout your body.
However, drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol can lead to heart problems. Too much alcohol may raise your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, putting you at higher risk for heart disease.
Q: Does binge drinking lead to liver disease?
A: Possibly. People who drink alcohol excessively have an increased risk of developing liver disease or liver failure, but not every person will develop these conditions.
The liver is essential for digesting foods and beverages. It breaks down alcohol and eliminates it from the body. Each person has a different alcohol metabolism, which is the ability to break down and eliminate alcohol. This metabolism is controlled by genetic factors, the amount of alcohol consumed and overall nutrition. Heavy drinking can cause increased fat and inflammation in the liver. Over time, this can cause irreversible damage and scarring of liver tissue, called cirrhosis. If left untreated, advanced cirrhosis can develop into liver failure, a life-threatening condition.
Q: Does alcohol protect against cancer?
A: No. Long-term, excessive alcohol use has been linked to a higher risk for many cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, colon and breast cancers. Even moderate drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Q: Does drinking alcohol increase the odds of catching a cold?
A: Yes. Alcohol can weaken your immune system. This can make it harder for your body to resist diseases and increase your risk for illnesses like colds, COVID-19 and pneumonia.
Q: My eye twitches when I drink. Is that normal?
A: Over time, heavy drinking can cause involuntary rapid eye movement or weakness and paralysis of your eye muscles. This is due to a vitamin B-1 deficiency, which causes other changes to your brain, like dementia, if not promptly treated. You should talk with your health care team about your symptoms.
If you're experiencing problems with alcohol, speak with your primary care provider or a licensed counselor.
Mayo Clinic Health System Fountain Centers is a chemical dependency treatment program that helps patients safely address substance-use problems and the life circumstances surrounding them.