Moderate drinking may help your health, but heavy boozing only hurts it. Here's how alcohol affects your body and your health.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
Updated February 18, 2020

Alcohol is one of the few socially acceptable drugs that people consume regularly. When it comes to the effects of alcohol on the body, it's not all bad, but it's also not all good. Read on for the nutrition of alcohol and what alcohol does to your body, in moderation and in excess.

Related: Health Benefits of Drinking Wine

Alcohol Nutrition

The calories in alcoholic beverages can vary based on their percentage of alcohol (and added ingredients). Higher-alcohol drinks generally have smaller serving sizes. Here are the usual calories in several common alcoholic beverages:

  • Sparkling Wine (Champagne, prosecco): 5 oz., 125 calories
  • White Wine: 5 oz., 125 calories
  • Red Wine: 5 oz., 130 calories
  • Light Beers (pilsner, helles, lager): 12 oz., 100 calories
  • Medium Beers (IPA, APA): 12 oz., 190 calories
  • Heavy Beers (IIPA, stout): 12 oz., 220 calories
  • Malt Liquor: 12 oz., 210 calories
  • Liqueurs: 1.5 oz. (1 shot), 170 calories (can vary with additional ingredients like sugar and cream)
  • Distilled Liquors (rum, vodka, gin, whiskey): 1.5 oz. (1 shot), 100 calories

Dehydration

Dehydration is more than just a parched feeling—it can contribute to neurological, urological, circulatory and gastrointestinal disorders over time. When you drink alcohol, it suppresses the hormone in your body that helps your body stay hydrated, called the antidiuretic hormone. Alcohol itself is also a diuretic, which means it draws water out of your body. When you get dehydrated from alcohol consumption, it can also lead to electrolyte imbalances. The seriousness of electrolyte imbalances depends on the severity of your dehydration. For example, sometimes rehydrating with a drink with electrolytes, like coconut water or a sports drink, can do the trick. Other times, these imbalances can be serious and require medical treatment.

One way to limit the dehydrating effects of alcohol is to alternate a glass of water between alcoholic drinks. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that those who drank beer and water after exercising were just as hydrated as those who drank only water.

Getty Images; Aleksanda Stoliarova

Related: 8 Hydrating Foods to Help You Meet Your Water Goals

Breast Cancer

As little as one alcoholic drink per day can raise your risk of breast cancer. Drinking alcohol can raise estrogen levels. Increased estrogen in the body is a known risk factor for breast cancer, and can even result from low levels of alcohol consumption.

When your body breaks down alcohol, it creates byproducts which may be carcinogenic. The more you drink, the harder it becomes for your body to clear them out. Women are particularly vulnerable to carcinogens from puberty through their first pregnancy, so the timing of alcohol consumption plays a role as well. On the bright side, eating a balanced, nutritious diet can be protective against these alcohol byproducts. For example, women who did not consume the recommended daily amount of folate (400 mcg) regularly were at a heightened risk compared to those who did.

Gut Health

Drinking alcohol can influence the composition and metabolic function of your GI tract. Alcohol causes our stomach cells to produce excess amounts of gastric acid. This can cause stomach irritability and nausea. Ongoing overconsumption of alcohol has been shown to cause oxidative stress that promotes the development of alcoholic liver disease, along with other conditions. Probiotics have been shown to help repair the GI damage, once drinking stops.

Related: 3 Foods to Ditch for a Healthy Gut

Pancreatic Health

Alcohol is the second most common cause of acute pancreatitis, with risk increasing substantially when someone has more than five drinks a day. Luckily, there has been no association found between moderate wine or beer consumption (read: one to two drinks daily) and pancreatitis. There are a few reasons why too much alcohol doesn't agree with your pancreas. Ethanol from alcohol promotes the initial pancreatic injury by inflaming and plugging the cells around the pancreas. Continuing to consume excessive amounts of alcohol inhibits the body's ability to repair the damaged cells. Diets high in nutrients such as thiamine, folate, fiber and vitamin D have been shown to be protective against pancreatic damage.

Liver Health

The liver is the first organ many people think of when talking about alcohol. It is well-established that excessive drinking can lead to fat accumulation in your liver and, ultimately, cirrhosis. Fortunately, early stages of liver disease are reversible, but cirrhosis is not. Body fat is highly influenced by alcohol, and can have a profound impact on your liver health as well. In a healthy body, fat tissue is necessary and important for longevity. However, over time, excessive alcohol consumption breaks down fat cells and sends them to the liver, where they can accumulate and lead to chronic liver disease. Obesity has been found to exacerbate this effect. Regular exercise has been found to reduce fat accumulation in the liver, and it improves body composition in general, which provides additional protection from liver disease.

Read On: Can Alcohol Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

Brain Health

A 2018 study in the BMJ found that, after 23 years of followup, the lowest incidence of dementia was found in adults who drank between one and fourteen drinks each week (two or fewer drinks per day). Surprisingly, they found that abstainers had the highest rates of dementia; and, unsurprisingly, heavy consumption greatly increased the risk. Moderate alcohol consumption prevents gaps from forming when brain cells naturally die; however, science is still unsure of the mechanisms for this. Additionally, a study in Molecular Psychiatry found that heavy drinkers, specifically men, had significantly more behavioral and social problems than moderate drinkers or abstainers. One nightly glass of wine or beer may be the sweet spot for staying mentally sharp.

Pictured: Avocado Margaritas

Heart Health

Moderate alcohol consumption boosts the good HDL cholesterol in our blood, which promotes clean arteries while also reducing inflammation (moderate is defined as one drink per day for women, and two for men). Better yet, low amounts of alcohol can also improve blood flow and blood pressure. This reduces your risk of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and artery disease. On the other hand, heavy drinking (five or more drinks daily) sabotages these benefits and actually increases blood pressure, which can be an additional risk for heart disease (see more of our best and worst foods to eat for heart health).

Bone Health

Booze may boost your bone health as well, when consumed in moderation. The same increases in sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) that can be a risk factor for reproductive cancers can increase bone density. Wine and beer may be more beneficial than spirits due to their antioxidant content. However, chronically consuming high levels of alcohol can damage your bones and deplete your body of minerals essential for bone health. In studies with rats, vitamin E has been found to improve the negative bone health outcomes associated with alcohol; however, more research is needed to form a conclusion.

Bottom Line

Alcohol is widely available and consumed, someway or somehow, in many cultures. The research is promising about the health benefits of consuming moderate amounts of alcohol. However, that is not to say you should pick up the habit if you don't already drink. What is well-established is that abuse of alcohol is incredibly damaging to numerous organs in your body. Alcohol can have a place in a healthy diet when consumed responsibly and in moderation. Cheers to that!

Keep Reading: Is Drinking Alcohol Bad for My Health?

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