It turns out, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the difference between being a “social drinker” and a “heavy drinker” may be less than you think.
If you’re a woman, consuming eight or more alcoholic drinks per week puts you in the “heavy drinker” category. If you’re a man, it’s 15 alcoholic drinks a week. (And to clear up any confusion, the CDC defines a “drink” as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ozs. (a “shot”) of distilled spirits, i.e., any standard liquor.)
Why is this important?
The cumulative effects of drinking excessively, especially on the human body, can take their toll, oftentimes to the extreme, including being the cause of death.
And by the way, if you’re wondering how many people excessive alcohol drinking affects, nearly one in five adults (19%) in the U.S. report regularly consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol.
Below is a list of 10 major effects of excessive drinking on the human body, per the National Institutes of Health and the CDC.
Chronic heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of developing certain cancers, specifically of the liver, throat, and the esophagus. Back in 1988, the World Health Organization declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning there is sufficient evidence it can cause cancer in humans.
Alcohol also increases the risk of breast cancer in women. The increased risk of breast cancer may be due to the fact that alcohol — in addition to damaging DNA in cells — increases estrogen levels in the body, and breast cancer cells feed on estrogen.
- Heart Disease
Chronic heavy drinking is one of the leading causes of heart disease, according to the CDC. In addition to cardiomyopathy (No. 7), alcohol may cause several other complications of the circulatory system, including high blood pressure (when the heart is pumping blood with more force than normal through the arteries), which can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Brain Shrinkage
Heavy alcohol users have a higher risk than normal of brain shrinkage. That is, those who have long-term exposure to alcohol will likely have their brain cells get smaller faster, which can contribute to negative, damaging effects on one’s memory and learning ability, as well as decreasing blood flow to the brain.
- Liver Disease
Excessive drinking has been shown to damage the liver and block it from proper functioning, obstructing its ability to remove toxic substances from the body. The result is toxins and other waste build up in the body, causing scarred tissue and eventually destroying the organ. Alcoholic liver cirrhosis, the most advanced form of liver disease, occurs when severe damage to the liver cannot be reversed, causing over 44,000 adult deaths in 2019.
Ulcers occur when there is a break in an organ membrane that prevents its proper functioning. If not detected soon after they begin to develop, they can be deadly, since an ulcer can precipitate internal bleeding. Unfortunately, ulcers are relatively common among heavy drinkers.
Those who have been long-term excessive drinkers have an increased risk of thinning bones, or osteoporosis, since heavy drinking has been shown to obstruct the body’s ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D, both of which are essential for the maintenance of strong and healthy bones.
It should be noted that bone loss and degradation can increase for years before a heavy drinker experiences symptoms or falls and fractures a bone due to the weakness of his or her bone structure.
- Weight Gain
Besides the fact that alcohol is a source of excess calories, heavy drinking can also induce weight gain, since alcohol consumption interferes with the body’s fat-burning functions. Alcohol provides the body with calories, but virtually no nutrients. Given the human body burns the calories from alcohol first, drinking alcohol delays the process of fat-burning, which comes after the body has burnt carbs and proteins for energy. Extra fat storage—known as weight gain—is the natural result.
- Irregular Heartbeat
Damage to the heart, including arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats, can come about as a result of excessive drinking. An irregular heartbeat, also known as atrial fibrillation, heightens the risk of heart failure, stroke and other heart-related complications. Research has indicated even low alcohol use multiplies the risk of irregular heartbeats; hence, anyone afflicted with an irregular heartbeat is advised to avoid alcohol.
- Chronic pancreatitis
According to studies, excessive alcohol consumption has been targeted as a leading cause of chronic pancreatitis—inflammation of the pancreas—which worsens over time and is untreatable. The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include weight loss, constant pain in the upper stomach and vomiting.
- Weakening or thickening of the heart
Serious damage to the heart can be caused by excessive drinking, including weakening and thickening the heart muscles, which inevitably affects the heart’s ability to pump blood. This condition is called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, and can lead to further complications and heart-related disorders.
If you or someone you know has an alcohol use disorder or is a heavy drinker, evidence-based treatment is available at a local addiction treatment center, which can be found online.
 “Excessive Alcohol Use.” CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention. Sept. 21, 2020.
 Esser, M.B., et al. “Prevalence of Alcohol Dependence Among U.S. Adult Drinkers, 2009-2011.” Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:140329.
 “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; “Excessive Alcohol Use.” CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention. Sept. 21, 2020.
 “Chronic Liver Disease and Cirrhosis.” CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.