We all know that alcohol consumption can cause major health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver and injuries from vehicle accidents. But if you think liver disease and car crashes are the only health risks posed by drinking, think again: Researchers have linked alcohol consumption to more than 60 diseases.
Here are just 12 conditions linked to chronic heavy drinking.
Heavy drinking can cause the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be abnormally low. This condition is known as anemia, and it can trigger a host of symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, headache and light-headedness.
Habitual drinking increases the risk of cancer. We believe the increased risk comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen. Cancer sites linked to alcohol use include the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region. The risk of cancer rises even higher in heavy drinkers who also use tobacco.
Heavy drinking, especially bingeing, makes platelets more likely to clump together into blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Researchers at Harvard have found that binge drinking (heavy drinking in a short space of time) doubled the risk of death among people who initially survived a heart attack.
Heavy drinking can also cause cardiomyopathy, a potentially deadly condition in which the heart muscle weakens and eventually fails, as well as the heart rhythm abnormalities atrial and ventricular fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, in which the heart’s upper chambers (atria) twitch in a chaotic manner rather than constrict rhythmically, can cause blood clots that can lead to a stroke. Ventricular fibrillation causes chaotic twitching in the heart’s main pumping chambers (ventricles). It causes rapid loss of consciousness and, without immediate treatment, sudden death.
Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and many heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, a sometimes-lethal condition in which the liver is so heavily scarred that it is unable to function. But to predict which drinkers will develop cirrhosis is difficult. Some people who drink huge amounts never get cirrhosis, and some who don’t drink very much do get it. For some unknown reason, women seem to be especially vulnerable.
As people age, their brains shrink, on average, at a rate of about 1.9% per decade. That’s considered normal. But heavy drinking speeds the shrinkage of certain key regions in the brain, resulting in memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.
Heavy drinking can also lead to subtle but potentially debilitating deficits in the ability to plan, make judgements, solve problems, and other aspects of “executive function,” which are the higher-order abilities that allow us to maximize our function as human beings.
In addition to the “nonspecific” dementia that stems from brain atrophy, heavy drinking can cause nutritional deficiencies so severe that they trigger other forms of dementia.
We’ve always known that heavy drinking often goes hand in hand with depression, but there has been debate about which come first – the drinking or the depression. One theory is that depressed people turned to alcohol in an attempt to “self-medicate” to ease their emotional pain. But a 2010 New Zealand study showed that it was probably the other way around – that is, heavy drinking led to depression.
Research also shows that depression goes away when heavy drinkers go on the wagon.
Heavy drinking can cause epilepsy and can bring on seizure even in people who don’t have epilepsy. It can also interfere with the action of the medications used to treat the disorder.
A painful condition, gout is caused by the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints. Although some cases are largely genetic, alcohol and other dietary factors seem to play a role. Alcohol also seems to aggravate existing cases of gout.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Alcohol can disrupt the sympathetic nervous system, which, among other things, controls the narrowing (constriction) or widening (dilation) of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature, exertion, and so on. Heavy drinking – and bingeing, in particular – can cause blood pressure to rise. Over time, this effect can become chronic. High blood pressure can lead to many other health problems, including kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke.
Heavy drinking suppresses the immune system, providing opportunities for infections, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases (including some that cause infertility). People who drink heavily also are more likely to engage in risky sex. In fact, heavy drinking is associated with a three-fold increase in the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
Heavy drinking can cause a form of nerve damage known as alcoholic neuropathy, which can produce a painful pins-and-needles feeling in the extremities, as well as muscle weakness, incontinence, constipation, erectile dysfunction, and other problems. Alcoholic neuropathy may arise because alcohol is toxic to nerve cells, or because nutritional deficiencies attributable to heavy drinking compromise nerve function.
In addition to causing stomach irritation (gastritis), drinking can inflame the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis interferes with the digestive process, causing abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea –and it’s not fixable. Some causes of chronic pancreatitis are triggered by gallstones, but up to 60% stem from alcohol consumption.
I’m pretty sure it will interest you to know that in a recent study from London, alcohol ranked more dangerous than crack, heroin, cocaine, cannabis, crystal meth, LSD, Ecstasy and a host of other dangerous drugs.
See you next week.
People of the north, Dr. Victor Emanuel will be in Portsmouth on Fridays from 8 am to 3 pm at Bayside Medical Center across from the police station.
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