Harmful effects of alcohol and illnesses caused by alcohol

It is not only heavy drinkers who suffer from the harmful effects of alcohol and alcohol-related illness – even moderate alcohol use can lead to health problems. In addition to illnesses, alcohol can reduce fertility and make you prone to abdominal obesity. Continued, long-term alcohol use can also expose you to the risk of alcohol dependence (aka alcoholism). Alcohol also increases the risk of being involved in an accident.

The acute risks caused by alcohol

The acute risks and harmful effects associated with alcohol consumption include an increased danger of accidents and poisoning caused by excessive intoxication.

Alcohol is a significant factor in domestic and leisure-time accidents. One in three fatal accidents occurs under the influence of alcohol. Half of these accidents involve death by alcohol poisoning, with the other half being accounted for by other incidents. Men have a notably higher risk of being involved in an alcohol-related accident than women. The majority of fatal alcohol-related accidents occur in the 55–69 age group.

Young people are a risk group for alcohol poisoning, as they are not fully aware of their own limits. However, young people under the age of 30 rarely die from alcohol poisoning. The majority of deaths from alcohol poisoning occur in the 50–64 age group.

Read more about alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol-induced diseases

Dependency on alcohol (aka alcoholism) is a brain disorder

Continued, long-term alcohol use can also expose you to the risk of alcohol dependence (aka alcoholism). Hereditary factors also increase your risk of alcoholism.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease in which the mind and body become dependent on alcohol. Alcohol dependency and the uncontrolled consumption of large quantities of alcohol can be considered a brain disorder, as the brain has lost its ability to regulate alcohol use. Alcoholism usually involves an increased tolerance for the intoxicating effects of alcohol, as well as withdrawal symptoms of varying severity.

Read more about how to seek help with reducing or quitting alcohol use.

Alcohol disrupts liver function – a risk of fatty liver disease and cirrhosis

The liver diseases caused by alcohol are fatty liver disease, hepatitis and cirrhosis.

When alcohol is burned in the liver, it alters the liver’s metabolism. This has various effects, such as disturbing the utilisation of nutrients. Fatty acids from food cannot be burned and fat begins to accumulate in the liver. Once the alcohol has been removed from the body, the fat that has formed in the liver disappears. However, if you continually consume alcohol, the accumulated fat will not be removed and this will result in fatty liver disease. Without treatment, it may lead to hepatitis and chronic hepatitis may in turn lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is incurable, as destroyed liver tissue cannot regenerate.

Pancreatitis is usually caused by alcohol use

Pancreatitis occurs when the cells that produce digestive enzymes start to malfunction and the enzymes are activated whilst still inside the pancreas. Enzymes are released into the area between the pancreatic cells and the surrounding tissue, causing inflammation.

Of the pancreatitis cases diagnosed in Finland, seven out of ten are caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Repeated inflammation may lead to chronic pancreatitis. A poorly functioning pancreas will also produce less insulin, which may result in diabetes.

Alcohol increases coronary and cardiovascular diseases

Heavy alcohol consumption is harmful to cardiac and cardiovascular health. Alcohol raises your blood pressure and puts you at risk of arrhythmia. Regular, long-term alcohol use may damage your cardiac muscle, which can lead to cardiomyopathy or heart failure. Alcohol may also weaken the effectiveness of cardiac and hypertension medication. Read more about the effects of alcohol on medication.

Alcohol increases cancer risks

Alcohol consumption has a proven connection to many different types of cancers. The risk increases in proportion to the amount of alcohol you have consumed during your lifetime. Acetaldehyde is held to be a key factor. The body transforms the ethanol contained in alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is a poisonous chemical that damages DNA and prevents cell repair. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified acetaldehyde and alcohol (ethanol) as carcinogens.

Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are the main causal factors for cancer of the pharynx, throat and oesophagus.

Alcohol damages liver cells and increases the risk of cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is in turn a major risk factor for liver cancer.

In men, alcohol also increases the risk of cancer of the large intestine. Although it most likely increases the risk for women as well, the results are not quite so clear cut.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in Finnish women. The most significant risk factors for breast cancer involve hormonal factors. Being overweight also increases your risk of breast cancer. Alcohol is an additional risk for breast cancer, and the risk increases in direct proportion to alcohol consumption.

Alcohol increases abdominal obesity

Abdominal obesity refers to the excess accumulation of fat in the abdominal area, the abdominal organs and the liver. Often, abdominal obesity is also linked to the risk of developing fatty liver disease. You can read an article about fatty liver disease in the section “Alcohol disrupts liver function”. Studies indicate that people who consume large quantities of alcohol have more fat in their abdominal cavity than moderate drinkers. Abdominal obesity, and likewise excess weight in general, may raise your blood pressure and put you at risk of diabetes.

Alcohol reduces fertility

Alcohol use has an impact on fertility. Studies show that even small quantities of alcohol may affect a man’s sperm count. Heavy alcohol consumption will also reduce a woman’s fertility.

The safest option is to quit drinking alcohol when you begin planning a pregnancy, as it may take some time to realise that you are pregnant and alcohol can have harmful effects on the foetus’s development in the early stages of pregnancy. Read more about alcohol and pregnancy.

Article sources:
Cancer Society of Finland
Duodecim Current Care Guidelines
Finnish Institute for health and welfare
Finnish Heart Association
Kidney and Liver Association
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health