About six to 28 percent of American adults engage in risky or unhealthy alcohol use. Although some studies have shown health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption (such as with red wine) heavy use over time has many negative effects on the body. The most common organ affected is the liver. Chronic, long-term alcohol consumption can lead to liver damage or alcoholic liver disease. Eventually, this can lead to cirrhosis and a whole host of subsequent medical conditions. The liver makes many of the body’s vital proteins, including many involved in the clotting process. Patients with liver disease can have more bleeding issues, similar to patients who take blood-thinning medications. The loss of proteins from the liver also leads to swelling of the legs and abdomen, called ascites. This can also lead to infections of the ascites fluid, called peritonitis, which often requires hospitalization and powerful antibiotics.
Alcohol also damages the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. This leads to low blood counts including red cells, white cells and platelets. Platelets are the main cells involved in the clotting process. Coupled with the loss of clotting proteins from liver disease, low platelets put liver disease patients at high risk for bleeding. Red cells are the main cells in the blood that carry oxygen from the lungs to the parts of the body, and low red cell count can lead to anemia. Severe anemia can be from a combination of blood loss related to low platelets and lack of clotting proteins from bleeding as well as the bone marrow’s impaired ability to make more red blood cells. White cells are the primary cells involved in fighting infections. Low white cells leads to increased risk of infections.
A common complication of liver disease is bleeding in the digestive tract. End-stage liver disease is called cirrhosis. The liver becomes hard and fibrous like a scar, and cannot function properly. This can lead to dilation of veins (hemorrhoids) going into the liver, large veins on the stomach and dilated veins in the esophagus. A life-threatening bleed of a dilated esophageal vein is called a variceal bleed. Patients often need to be in the intensive care unit and receive multiple blood transfusions to keep up with the blood loss. This is usually treated with a procedure performed by a specialist called a gastroenterologist to stop the bleeding. Alcohol also directly irritates the inside lining of the stomach, in a condition called gastritis.
Alcohol directly poisons the heart, eventually causing a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. This can eventually result in heart failure. Alcohol use can also affect the pancreas in a very painful condition called pancreatitis, which often means hospitalization. It has also been linked to cancer of the pancreas, breast, liver, colon, esophagus, head and neck.
It’s recommended to consume alcohol in moderation.