Versão em Português

Alcoholism: 10 health damages

02 Fevereiro 2016

Harmful use of alcohol can affect various parts of the body, causing diseases such as cancer, pancreatitis, among others.

Excessive and continued consumption of alcohol increases the risk for health complications. The effects of alcohol on each individual are different and depend on a number of factors, even when consumed in equal amounts.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no completely safe and risk-free level of drinking. When the use of alcohol assumes a prominent role in the individual's life, occurring very frequently and in larger amounts than planned, one may be facing a condition of alcoholism. On the other hand, the recognized American institution NIAAA – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism considers the differences between the sexes in its recommendations. Thus, for men, the advice is not to consume more than four drinks in a single day, or 14 drinks per week; for women, as well as for the elderly, the recommendation is to limit the consumption to 3 drinks per day, not exceeding 7 per week. It is worth mentioning that the reference here is the concept of standard drink, which in Brazil is equivalent to 14 g of pure alcohol.

Alcoholism results from the repeated or continuous use of alcoholic beverages. Its main characteristic is a strong internal drive, which is manifested by the impaired ability to control alcohol consumption, increasing its priority over other activities, in addition to leading the person to persist in using it, despite damage to health and negative consequences.

See below 10 damages that the harmful use of alcohol can bring to health, such as liver disease, gastrointestinal problems, pancreatitis, peripheral neuropathies, cardiovascular problems, brain damage, immune system damage, anemia, osteoporosis and cancer.


 Liver diseases

Alcohol is metabolized by the liver and, therefore, this organ has great potential for damage. Alcoholic liver disease is directly influenced by the amount of alcohol consumed and by chronic use. It is estimated that between 90% and 100% of chronic heavy drinkers develop fatty liver disease (accumulation of fat in the liver) as an early and still reversible consequence. But with continued consumption, alcohol can cause alcoholic hepatitis. Up to 40% of these cases can progress to cirrhosis, chronic irreversible inflammation of the liver that alters its ability to function properly. Symptoms of liver failure, such as nausea and vomiting, reduced appetite, yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin, and an increased propensity to bleed, only appear when major and irreversible damage to the organ has already occurred. On the other hand, the signs, which can be identified with complementary tests, such as changes in liver enzymes and protein fractions, are previously altered.

 Gastrointestinal problems

Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages can cause injuries and inflammation in the digestive system, such as the esophagus and stomach, causing bleeding, vomiting and reflux symptoms, such as heartburn and pain in the upper abdomen. In addition, alcohol interferes with the secretion of gastric juice produced by the stomach and with the time for stomach emptying, interfering with digestion and leading to the risk of developing ulcers.


Acute pancreatitis is a severe inflammatory condition that often requires emergency medical care to control symptoms, such as severe abdominal pain. Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis, with the pancreas malfunctioning irreversibly, which causes other health problems. Alcohol abuse is the main cause of pancreatitis. In general, it occurs after 5 to 10 years of heavy and sustained consumption. As a consequence, it is known that the mortality rate of patients with alcoholic pancreatitis is about 36% higher than for the general population.

 Peripheral neuropathy

Approximately 10% of alcoholics develop a condition of deterioration in the functioning of the nerves in the feet and hands, resulting in symptoms of numbness, tingling and other sensitivity changes. Symptoms may improve with alcohol withdrawal.

 Heart and vascular problems

Heavy alcohol use increases the release of stress-related hormones that act to contract blood vessels and influence blood pressure, which can cause hypertension. In addition, prolonged heavy consumption of alcohol also leads to an increase in the harmful fraction of cholesterol (known as LDL) and triglycerides, and to an alteration in the functioning of platelets. Thus, events such as arrhythmias, inflammation of the heart muscle (myocardiopathy), and acute infarctions are possible consequences of alcoholism. Just as arteries in the heart are damaged by heavy and chronic drinking, arteries in other organs of the body can also be affected, such as those of the brain, increasing the risk for stroke.

 Brain damage

Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, directly interfering with brain mechanisms. Its excessive use can cause difficulties in reasoning, such as solving simple problems, as well as altering the sense of danger and behavior. Insomnia problems and poor sleep quality, with a feeling of “fragmented” sleep, are complaints commonly associated with the abusive use of alcoholic beverages. Heavy and chronic use can also impair balance and motor coordination, due to its toxic effect on the cerebellum, in addition to reducing reflexes, increasing the chances of falls. Still, in alcoholic individuals there is a risk of dementia. Vitamin deficiencies, such as vitamin B1 (thiamine), contribute to the risk of alcoholic dementia, a serious and irreversible condition.

 Immune dysfunctions

Weakened and impaired immune system function can occur with chronic heavy alcohol use, increasing the risk of infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Such a pattern of alcohol consumption interferes with the white blood cell count and alters the ability to fight infections. In addition, during the initial period of alcohol intoxication, a pre-inflammatory state can occur, which increases the chance of complications if there is an accident or injury, or if the individual has a preexisting disease.


Malnutrition conditions related to heavy and continuous use of alcohol can occur either by adopting a nutritionally poor diet, as by the reduced absorption of nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract. Vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency, added to the toxic effect of alcohol, can lead to macrocytic or megaloblastic anemia. In this clinical condition, the formation of red blood cells (red blood cells) is altered, leading to a worse functioning and impairing the ability to carry oxygen to the body's cells.


Chronic alcohol consumption throughout life can influence bone health, especially the bone mineralization process, increasing the risk of developing osteoporosis at older ages and of fractures. It is also known that alcohol can interfere with the metabolic balance of calcium and the production of vitamin D, which can contribute to bone complications. For women, excessive alcohol consumption is linked to the greatest increase in bone loss at all ages.


Heavy alcohol consumption is associated with several types of cancer, such as mouth, esophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum and breast. The causative agents are not all known, but it is known that, specifically, acetaldehyde - a product of alcohol metabolism - can have carcinogenic effects.


It is important to stress that, for some people, according to age, gender and individual aspects of health, heavy and continued consumption of alcoholic beverages for many years, even if it is not diagnosed as alcoholism, may be related to the diseases mentioned above. Therefore, we recommend that, if you have chosen to drink, do not abuse and respect consumption limits to prevent your health from suffering from these and other damages resulting from the harmful use of alcohol.

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