After a night of chasing beers with tequila shots, the next morning’s hangover might actually be the least of your worries. More research shows that even a single episode of binge drinking can have serious effects on all parts of your body, not just your brain.
Long-term damage from heavy alcohol use isn’t limited to people with alcohol use disorder. Frequent binge drinkers can also develop health problems.
Binge drinking is defined as men consuming five or more drinks within about two hours. For women, it’s defined as consuming four or more drinks within about two hours. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 6 U.S. adults reported binge drinking in 2015.
The 37 million binge drinkers had about one binge per week and consumed an average of seven drinks per episode. That comes out to about 17 billion total binge drinks for the year.
You’ll start to feel the effects of alcohol within 5 to 10 minutes of having a drink.
About 90 percent of the alcohol in your blood is broken down by the liver. The rest is excreted through the lungs, kidneys, or in sweat.
For an average-sized person, the liver can only break down about one standard drink per hour. If you drink more alcohol than what your liver can process, your blood alcohol content (BAC) will increase. So will the effects on your body.
Other factors also affect your BAC, such as how quickly you drink, whether you’ve eaten recently, and your body type. Even your age, sex, and ethnicity play a part.
Binge drinking has many effects on the body. But what’s often overlooked is that it can be a risky activity.
“It’s estimated that about half of all alcohol-related deaths in the United States are related to acute intoxication, and most of the economic costs are also related to binge drinking,” said Dr. Timothy Naimi, professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and co-author of the CDC study.
Binge drinking can lead to death from alcohol poisoning. Or by depressing the gag reflex, which puts a person who has passed out at risk of choking on their own vomit. Excessive alcohol also affects your actions, which can increase your risk of injuries and death from motor vehicle accidents, drowning, suffocation, and other accidents.
“Acutely, when you’re impaired by alcohol, you not only have poor coordination, but you also have very poor judgment and very poor executive functioning,” Naimi told Healthline.
Alcohol is also often found in the blood of people who harm themselves or attempt suicide.
A single night of binge drinking has a number of other effects, especially at higher amounts.
“When it comes to inflammation of the pancreas, stomach, or liver, those effects can be acute,” said Naimi. “A very heavy single drinking episode, or several of those in a short space of time, can cause acute inflammation and irritation of those organs.”
In addition to increasing the risk of injury, binge drinking impairs the body’s ability to heal from those injuries.
“If a person is drunk and gets injured, the person will have more complications when alcohol is present in the body, as opposed to a person who may not have been exposed to alcohol,” said Mashkoor Choudhry, PhD, director of the Alcohol Research Program at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
- Heart. Heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, or sudden death from heart failure.
- Kidneys. Alcohol is a diuretic, which causes the kidneys to produce more urine. This, alone or with vomiting, can lead to dehydration and dangerously low levels of sodium, potassium, and other minerals and salts.
- Lungs. Alcohol inhibits the gag reflex, which can lead to vomit, saliva, or other substances entering the lungs. This can cause inflammation or infection in the lungs.
- Pancreas. A single session of heavy alcohol use can lead to dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
- Sexual health. Being drunk increases the chance of having unsafe sex — which can lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unplanned pregnancy.
After a single night of binge drinking, some of the short-term effects will go away. Many, like injuries or STIs, can stay with you for years. There’s not a lot of research on how long the physical effects of binge drinking last, or whether your body can recover completely. More frequent binge drinking, though, is more likely to lead to long-term damage.
One recent study by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that 21 binge drinking sessions over seven weeks was enough to cause symptoms of early stage liver disease in mice. More research needs to be done on people, but the effects of long-term heavy alcohol use are already well-known.
Over the long run, alcohol increases the risk of several cancers, including cancer of the liver, mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, colon, and rectum. Even a few drinks a week is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer in women.
Heavy, long-term alcohol use can lead to alcoholic liver disease, which includes inflammation of the liver and cirrhosis. Excessive drinking is also bad for the cardiovascular system, leading to increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat.
More researchers are looking at the effects of alcohol on the intestinal microbiome — the bacteria and other organisms that live inside us.
“A single alcohol drink may not have that much of an impact [on the microbiome], but bingeing or chronic alcohol drinking certainly will change the microbiome in the gastrointestinal tract,” said Choudhry. “And this microbiome has many long-term effects on different parts of the body.”
The microbiome has been implicated in medical conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to obesity.
Long-term heavy alcohol use can also affect your:
- Blood and immune system. Chronic alcohol use can lead to anemia, low platelets, and a suppressed immune system.
- Bones and muscles. Heavy long-term use of alcohol can interfere with absorption of calcium and bone formation. This can lead to osteoporosis.
- Brain and nervous system. Heavy alcohol use increases the risk of stroke and can lead to dementia or impaired balance and coordination.
- Mental health. In addition to alcohol dependency and addiction, heavy drinkers are at higher risk of depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
- Sexual health. Chronic heavy use of alcohol can reduce fertility in men and women and decrease a man’s sex drive. Drinking while pregnant can also affect the health of the fetus.
- Intestines. Heavy alcohol intake can interfere with the absorption of vitamins and other nutrients in the gut. This can lead to malnutrition.
Cutting back on the amount or frequency of drinking can reduce these risks. But even low-risk alcohol use doesn’t mean no risk.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that men consume no more than four drinks on any day and no more than 14 drinks per week. Women should drink no more than three drinks a day and no more than seven per week.
Reducing the impact of binge drinking on society, though, will need recognizing the scope of the problem and addressing it with alcohol taxes, alcohol advertising guidelines, and reasonable restrictions on availability of alcohol.
“Binge drinking is a very common behavior. It’s not a behavior that’s limited, by any means, to alcoholics,” said Naimi. “And it’s a behavior that can be readily reduced by strong public health interventions.”
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