This is the first of 2 articles about alcohol and your health. Find information on how to drink less and stay within low-risk limits in article 2.
The past few years have been stressful, and we’ve all found different ways of coping. You may have picked up new habits — some that are healthy and some that aren’t as healthy. Maybe you’re taking daily walks. Watching more TV. Prioritizing time with family. Or having a few glasses of wine a night.
Many people have an occasional glass of wine or alcoholic drink when spending time with friends or relaxing. But if you’re drinking more alcohol than you used to, you’re not alone. "The pandemic’s effect on alcohol use has been devastating," says Reham Attia, MD, an addiction medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente. By the end of 2020, 39% of people were drinking more than recommended.1 Women were drinking more excessively than men — and mothers with children under 5 increased their drinking by 300%.
How much alcohol is safe?
Alcohol affects people differently depending on their gender and age. Women should have no more than one drink a day or 7 drinks a week, and men should have no more than 2 drinks a day or 14 drinks a week, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The definition of "one drink" depends on the type of alcohol. Beverages with a higher percentage of alcohol have a stronger impact. A standard drink of 14 grams is equal to:
- Hard liquor (40% alcohol) — 1.5 ounces
- Wine (12% alcohol) — 5 ounces
- Beer (5% alcohol) — 12 ounces, which is usually the amount in a can or bottle of beer
Since the size of wine and alcohol glasses vary, you can first measure the amount of wine or hard alcohol before pouring it in a glass.
Overindulging doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem. But if you’ve found yourself drinking more or have been thinking about cutting back, it may be a good time to look at your relationship with alcohol. Drinking too much can put you at risk for several health problems. A 2022 study found that 5 or more days of heavy drinking over a 3-month period can increase the chance of developing a severe alcohol use disorder.2
Here’s what you need to know about alcohol and your health.
Alcohol can harm your body and mind
If you’re regularly drinking too much alcohol, you could be hurting your health without realizing it. Alcohol is a toxin that most tissues in the body absorb. That means too much of it can harm many of your organs — either creating health problems or making existing ones worse. Alcohol also increases your chances of getting several types of cancers.
Alcohol was already a leading cause of preventable death, but the spike in drinking during the pandemic impacted public health immediately. In 2020, alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. rose 25%, mainly in people 35 to 44.3 Most deaths were from liver disease and mental or behavioral disorders.
Here are some common health issues related to drinking too much:
Your liver does most of the work in breaking down alcohol, so it’s the organ most at risk of damage. The amount of alcohol needed to hurt your liver depends on your genetic makeup, Dr. Attia says.
"The most common issue I see is fatty liver disease," she says. Alcohol-related fatty liver disease is curable, but it can lead to cirrhosis, a disease that causes liver failure. When liver cells die, they’re replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis can be fatal without a liver transplant.
Since the pandemic, the number of people waiting for a liver transplant has risen.4 "We’re getting 3 to 4 cases a week," up from 1 to 2 a month, Dr. Attia says. Most patients are in their 50s, but she’s now seeing some in their early 30s.
Heavy drinking can cause a rapid, irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AFib). People over 55 and those who drink even one glass of alcohol each day have a greater chance of developing AFib.5 If it happens often, AFib can increase your risk of stroke. Drinking can also raise your cholesterol and blood pressure.
Often, people become dependent on alcohol to fall asleep, Dr. Attia says. But after a few hours, alcohol can wake you up and make it difficult to go back to sleep.
It may take up to 90 days without alcohol for your brain to reset its sleep cues, she says. While you adjust, drink less caffeine and exercise every day.
Depression and anxiety
Mental health issues and alcohol misuse are often connected. People who use alcohol regularly are more likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety — and people who have depression or anxiety are more likely to have alcohol problems.
Limiting how much you drink or quitting drinking altogether may help address some mental health issues, Dr. Attia says. However, if you’re still struggling with mental health issues after changing your drinking habits, talk to your doctor about treatment options. They can also help you assess your drinking and come up with a plan.
Be mindful of your alcohol use
If you choose to drink alcohol, the key is to keep your drinking at low to moderate levels. You may also decide that you want to change your habits. If so, here are some tips for how to drink less.
And if you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol use, we’re here for you. Kaiser Permanente offers a range of treatment and recovery options in a safe, judgment-free environment.