Red wine pouring into wine glass

Drinking Informed: The Health Effects of Alcohol

Red wine pouring into wine glass

Although people have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years, the role boozy beverages play in a healthy lifestyle is hotly debated. Some argue that teetotaling is the healthiest option, while others tout the health benefits of a daily glass of red wine. If you’re not sure what to believe…read on.

At the end of the day, your alcohol choices are up to you. But as you navigate the world of drinking, abstaining, and everything in between, it’s good to have the facts.

What Is Alcohol and How Does It Work?

Most define alcohol in loose terms: it’s found in beer, wine, and liquor (and more) and is responsible for intoxication—and other side effects—of such beverages. This description, while accurate and practical, doesn’t answer what alcohol is and how it actually works. For that, we need to turn to science.

Alcohols (yes, plural intended) are organic compounds composed of at least one hydroxyl (a hydrogen and oxygen atom bonded together) that is bound to an alkyl group. These compounds are incredibly common—a wide variety of organic compounds can be classified as alcohols. The two most notable are ethanol and methanol. We’ll be focusing on ethanol, given it’s the alcohol  found in alcoholic beverages.

Ethanol, which looks a lot like water, is a byproduct of plant fermentation. When it’s consumed your liver immediately begins breaking it down to remove it from the body. But your liver can only work so fast. Intoxication is the result of drinking alcohol faster than your liver can do its job.

With your liver working overtime, the excess alcohol enters your bloodstream. Once in the blood, alcohol acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It slows down a variety of brain functions, starting with the cerebellum, which is responsible for balance and motor function. Alcohol also triggers the release of certain neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, both tied to mood boosts and mild euphoria.

The Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

Although alcohol doesn’t affect the body immediately, it does act pretty quickly. Everyone processes alcohol a little differently, but after a drink or two, most people start to feel the first effects. These include mild euphoria (think dopamine and serotonin release), lowered inhibitions, and slowed reaction time.

The more you drink, the more it impacts your body. Short-term effects of alcohol include slurred speech, decreased motor function, distorted vision, vomiting, impaired memory (to the point of “blacking out”), and even loss of consciousness. Many of these more serious effects are signs of alcohol poisoning—a clear indicator you’ve overdone the drinking.

Alcohol also acts as a diuretic—a substance that causes frequent urination. This means when you’re drinking your body is losing fluid faster than usual. And this can lead to dehydration. In fact, dehydration is one of the biggest contributing factors to the hangover you might feel the next day.

Most people drink in the evening as they wind down for the day. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, consuming alcohol right before bed can disrupt your sleep cycle. You may find it easier to fall asleep after drinking your beverage of choice, but alcohol can prevent your body from reaching the deepest, most restful stages of sleep. This may leave you feeling unrested and fatigued.

So how long do these effects last? Well, it depends on the person, how much they drank, how fast they drank it, and a whole slew of other factors. Alcohol can typically be detected in your system anywhere from six hours to three days. But most of the short-term effects will likely clear up within a day.

The Long-Term Effects of Drinking

The human body is incredibly resilient, and there generally aren’t long-term health problems tied to moderate alcohol consumption. The key word here is moderate. Heavy drinking, on the other hand, can start to take its toll on the body over time.

Naturally, the long-term effects of alcohol consumption vary from person to person. Some of the most common health complications of prolonged, heavy drinking include high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.

And these are just the physical effects. Excessive alcohol consumption has also been tied to higher occurrences of certain mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. In extreme cases, heavy drinking can also lead to alcohol dependence, which, like most addictions, is both a physical and a mental ailment that needs to be dealt with.

How Much Is Too Much? Levels of Alcohol Consumption

From complete abstinence (teetotaling), to moderate, and all the way to and excessive or heavy, there are many levels of drinking. And, as mentioned, most long-term health risks stem from heavy alcohol consumption.

This begs the question: how much is too much?

Although there’s no exact answer to this question—everybody processes alcohol a little bit differently—most government health agencies have guidelines to follow. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) classifies the levels of drinking as follows:

  • Moderate drinking: For men, moderate drinking is defined as up to two drinks per day, fifteen drinks per week. For women, those numbers change to one drink per day, eight drinks per week.
  • Heavy drinking: Any drinking that exceeds the CDC guidelines for moderate drinking. Three or more drinks per day for men, or more than fifteen drinks per week. And for women, two or more drinks per day, eight or more drinks per week.

Additionally, the CDC also defines binge drinking—heavy drinking in a small window of time. Five or more drinks per single occasion constitutes binge drinking for men; for women, this number is four or more drinks.

As you get older, you may want to revisit these guidelines, as well as your relationship to alcohol—especially if you are a man. Aging is associated with a decreased ability to metabolize alcohol. As such, both the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Geriatric Society advise men over the age of 65 to consume no more than one drink per day.

Fact or Fiction: Drinking Can Be Good For Your Health

You’ve probably heard someone make the claim a glass of red wine in the evening is actually good for health. And, more specifically, good for your heart. But how true is it?

This theory is believed to have originated with what is called the French Paradox—the notion that French people love three things: butter, cheese, and wine. Cheese and butter are not terribly good for the heart, and yet France sees relatively low rates of heart disease. So some theorized that red wine must counteract the effects of those fatty foods.

As nice as it sounds, there’s a narrow amount of science to back this up. Some beneficial phytonutrients, like resveratrol, can be found in wine. But phytonutrient totals are typically pretty limited and vary a lot wine to wine.

Some surprising nutritional perks are hidden in beer. Unfiltered beers can contain small amounts of antioxidants, soluble fiber, and other micronutrients. These nutrients aren’t in high enough quantities to justify pouring yourself a beer just for the nutritional content. But hey, if you’re already cracking one open, you’ll take all the nutrients you can get.