Many adults enjoy drinking alcohol, but as with anything, moderation is important. Unfortunately, you can develop issues with alcohol abuse without intending to do so. In addition, many adults falsely believe that they don’t exhibit problematic drinking, while in truth the amount of alcohol they consume is considered excessive by the medical community.
Although some would argue that moderate drinking can be relatively safe, there is an increased risk of several significant health issues, such as certain cancers and liver disease, associated with long-term alcohol use. Quitting may reduce some of these risks, although the impact may not be obvious right away.
You may think that the amount of alcohol you consume makes you a moderate or social drinker; however, the latest consensus on the definition of moderate drinking outlines the following:3
You may be surprised that your alcohol consumption is greater than these limits noted above. Furthermore, you may also be surprised to learn that alcohol consumption guidelines are different for men and women. However, in general, women have relatively less water in their bodies than men do and, since alcohol distributes throughout water in the body, females more readily attain a higher blood alcohol concentration than their male counterparts based on the same volume of alcohol consumed.1
Some individuals may also be unwitting binge drinkers. What some might characterize as merely an occasional multi-drink session may actually be engaging in a potentially-dangerous form of alcohol abuse, since it can increase the risk of unintentional injuries, alcohol poisoning, violent behaviors, unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and many other detrimental consequences.2 Binge drinking is defined as having enough alcohol to bring your blood alcohol level up to 0.08% or above. This typically occurs after consuming:2
About 17% of U.S. adults report engaging in binge drinking four times per month. Of those who drink excessively, about 90% have reported past-month binge drinking. Binge drinking is more common among males and people aged 18–34.2
There is some evidence that limited alcohol consumption may confer some health benefits. The most well-researched of these benefits is the reduction of cardiovascular disease in moderate drinkers vs. nondrinkers. There is some evidence that people who drink moderately may sleep better, have fewer problems with their weight, and have a lower incidence of developing gallstones.3 As always, it’s best to talk to your doctor about your drinking habits and how they’re impacting your overall health.
Alcohol consumption can be linked to an increased risk of cancer in some people. In 2012, it was estimated that worldwide, 5.5% of all new cases of cancer and 5.8% of all cancer deaths could be attributed to alcohol use.4 The categories of cancer most associated with alcohol use are:5
That being said, according to several studies, alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of two types of cancers: non-Hodgkin lymphoma and kidney cancer. More research is needed to understand how alcohol decreases the risk of these two cancers.5 The health risks of chronic alcohol consumption far outweigh any conferred benefits, and these findings are certainly no reason for anyone to begin drinking.
You may be wondering why alcohol increases the risk of cancer. Alcohol is a carcinogen, meaning it is a substance which can cause or promote the development of cancer. A carcinogenic agent can induce a process known as carcinogenesis, which means that healthy cells are turned into cancer cells as the result of cumulative, cellular genetic damage.7
The carcinogenic properties of alcohol mainly occur due to:5
You may also unknowingly carry a genetic predisposition to develop cancer more easily than others. Some genetic variations that impact a person’s alcohol-related cancer risk are:5
In 2009, approximately 3.5% of all cancer deaths (about 19,500 people) in the United States were related to alcohol.8
That same year, between 56% and 66% of all alcohol-related cancer deaths in women were from breast cancer, and between 53% and 71% of alcohol-related cancer deaths in men were from mouth and throat cancers.8
One study found that about 18 years of potential life (based on the average lifespan) were lost for each alcohol-related cancer death.8
Some studies have evaluated the outcome of quitting drinking on a person’s risk of developing cancer. These studies have primarily focused on head and neck cancer and esophageal cancers. The outcomes indicated that the risk of developing cancer is not immediately reduced, and perhaps will take as long as 16 years for the cancer risk to return to the risk level that was present before becoming a heavy drinker.5
Although it will take time to reduce alcohol-related cancer risk, quitting now is better than continuing to drink, as cancer is not the only risk associated with heavy alcohol abuse; drinking can cause many other detrimental consequences on a person’s mental and physical health, social life, occupational or educational life, and interpersonal relationships. The first step towards getting substance abuse treatment is often the hardest, but entering a comprehensive program that can help rectify your problematic drinking patterns and build healthy coping skills is the best choice you can make for your health and happiness.