How alcohol affects your heart, liver, weight and cancer risk

For most people, the past month has been jam-packed with holiday cocktails, sparkling champagne, and an abundance of red wine. With many of us starting to feel our willpower waning in regards to Dry January, the question arises: Can alcohol ever be good for you?

There is no doubt that drinking alcohol carries risks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that alcohol consumption is associated with a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, cancer, car accidents, violence and more.

But according to the most recent guidelines of the United States Department of Health, it is considered safe for men to have up to two drinks per day and for women to have up to one drink per day. There are also indications that red wine can be good for your heartand studies have even found that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with longevity.

Still, it’s worth asking: If those guidelines suggest those numbers are “safe,” what exactly are they considering?

According to experts, the question of whether alcohol can ever be good for you is a complicated one, so strap yourself in – and be prepared to give up those “half bottle of wine” evenings for good. Below, we explore how alcohol can affect your heart, your weight, your liver, and your risk of cancer.

How alcohol affects your heart

First things first: Is alcohol good for your heart? That’s a question cardiologist Dr. Don Pham is asked all the time.

“The short answer to this question is we really don’t know for sure,” he told HuffPost in an email. “This belief grew out of the ‘French paradox,’ where observations from the 1990s showed that the population there had a lower risk of dying from heart disease, despite similar consumption of saturated fat, blood pressure and tobacco use.”

One key difference, Pham explains, is that the French consumed more red wine, and this suggested a possible link between alcohol and heart health. But “in reality, it is unclear whether there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the two,” or whether there are “other factors at play, such as a healthier lifestyle or less stress through more social interactions.”

Then there’s all this talk about red wine, specifically about improving heart health. Can resveratrol, the antioxidant contained in it, really make your heart healthier?

“Some research suggests reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes by increasing your ‘good’ cholesterol levels,” Pham said. “Resveratrol is an antioxidant in red wine found in the skin of grapes that may reduce inflammation and blood clotting” — although the data is “mixed,” he said, “more research is needed.”

What we do know for sure is that you want to avoid heavy alcohol consumption.

“The American Heart Association recommends that if you drink, moderation is key,” Pham said. “This equates to one drink a day for women and one to two for men. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in two hours for women and five or more for men.”

How Alcohol Affects Your Weight

According to the registered dietitian, it is especially important to consider alcohol consumption if you want to lose weight Maggie Michalczyk.

“Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram. That, along with the fact that many alcoholic beverages contain added sweeteners and sugar, increases the amount of calories in many commonly consumed alcoholic beverages,” she said.

A sweet cocktail (or three) can pack more calories than you think.

Marianna Massey via Getty Images

A sweet cocktail (or three) can pack more calories than you think.

In addition, alcohol is mainly metabolized in the liver, where fat is also metabolized.

“Alcohol slows fat metabolism and fat storage, which in turn can lead to weight gain,” explains Michalczyk. “Drinking also leads to hangovers for most of us, which affects many aspects of a healthy lifestyle, such as sleep quality, and the desire to exercise and make healthy food choices the next day. This can create a negative cycle that healthy lifestyle.”

While Michalczyk is aware of the potential health benefits of red wine, she believes the real benefits of alcohol have more to do with the pleasure that can result.

“Alcohol can be fun and festive, just like food — mixology can be an art form,” she said. “I believe that balanced and intentional consumption is the best approach to drinking.”

How Alcohol Affects Your Liver

As mentioned above, alcohol is metabolized in the liver and unfortunately there can be harmful effects associated with this.

“Drinking more than the recommended daily amounts for men and women or binge drinking can do harm [to] your liver, leading to diseases such as fatty liver and cirrhosis,” Registered Dietitian Jen Schinman said.

“Excessive alcohol consumption may also increase the risk of liver cancer,” she noted. “Actually one study showed that just three drinks a day was enough to increase your risk of liver cancer. Since your liver helps process and eliminate alcohol from your body, it’s best to avoid it completely if you already have liver disease.

How alcohol affects your cancer risk

In addition to increasing your chances of developing liver cancer, alcohol consumption also increases your risk of developing other types of cancer.

“There are a few ways that alcohol can affect your cancer risk,” Scheinman said. “First, the breakdown of alcohol in your body produces acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can damage your DNA and cause cancer. Alcohol can also cause oxidative stress in the body, causing further cell damage.”

Further, she said, alcohol can affect the absorption of important nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamins C and E. “Low levels of many vitamins and antioxidants are associated with a higher risk of cancer,” Scheinman noted. “Alcohol can also increase levels of hormones such as estrogen, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.”

So, should you give up alcohol altogether? If you’re generally healthy, you certainly don’t have to – although it would be hard to find a health expert who will advise you to drink alcohol improve your health.

If you’re going to drink Research shows that taking breaks from alcohol can be beneficial to your overall health. And it’s always important to consume alcohol in moderation, no matter what type you drink.

Need help with addiction or psychological problems? In the US, call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

Leave a Comment