Your Body On Alcohol: How It Affects Your Heart, Liver, Weight And Cancer Risk

Is any amount of alcohol good for you? Experts share what it does to key parts of your body and aspects of your health.
Some studies say red wine is good for certain health factors, while others suggest omitting alcohol entirely. What's true?
Instants via Getty Images
Some studies say red wine is good for certain health factors, while others suggest omitting alcohol entirely. What's true?

For most people, the past month or so was jam-packed with holiday cocktails, bubbly Champagne and an abundance of red wine. Now, as many of us are starting to feel our willpower wane regarding Dry January, the question arises: Can alcohol ever be good for you?

There’s no question that drinking alcohol comes with risks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that alcohol consumption is associated with a number of health concerns, including high blood pressure, cancer, car accidents, violence and more.

But according to the most recent guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health, it’s considered safe for men to have up to two drinks per day, and for women to have up to one drink per day. There’s also some evidence that red wine can be good for your heart, and studies have even found that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with longevity.

Still, it’s worth asking: When those guidelines suggest those numbers are “safe,” what exactly are they considering?

According to experts, the question of whether alcohol can ever be good for you is a complicated one, so buckle up — and be prepared to give up those “half a bottle of wine” nights for good. Below, we examine how alcohol can affect your heart, your weight, your liver and your risk of cancer.

How Alcohol Affects Your Heart

First things first: Is alcohol good for your heart? That’s a question cardiologist Dr. Don Pham is asked all the time.

“The short answer to this question is that we’re really not sure,” he told HuffPost in an email. “This belief stemmed from the ‘French paradox,’ where observations from the 1990s showed that the population there had a lower risk of dying from heart disease despite having similar consumption of saturated fat intake, blood pressure and tobacco usage.”

One key difference, Pham explained, is that the French consumed more red wine, and this suggested a possible association between alcohol and heart health. But “in reality, it is unclear whether there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the two,” or if there are “other factors involved such as a healthier lifestyle or less stress from more social interactions.”

Then there’s all that talk about red wine in particular improving heart health. Can resveratrol, the antioxidant that’s found in it, really make your heart healthier?

“Some studies suggest a reduction in your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by raising your ‘good’ cholesterol levels,” Pham said. “Resveratrol is an antioxidant in red wine found in the skin of grapes that may lower inflammation and blood clotting” ― although the data is “mixed,” he said, “with more research needed.”

What we do know for sure is that you want to avoid heavy alcohol consumption.

“The American Heart Association recommends that if you do drink, then moderation is key,” Pham said. “This equates to one drink per day for women and one to two for men. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in two hours for women and five or more for men.”

How Alcohol Affects Your Weight

If you’re looking to lose weight, it’s especially important to be mindful of alcohol consumption, according to registered dietitian Maggie Michalczyk.

“Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram. That, along with the fact that many alcoholic drinks contain added sweeteners and sugar, drives up the amount of calories in many commonly consumed alcoholic beverages,” she said.

A sugary cocktail (or three) can add up to more calories than you realize.
Marianna Massey via Getty Images
A sugary cocktail (or three) can add up to more calories than you realize.

On top of that, alcohol is mainly metabolized in the liver, where fat is also metabolized.

“Alcohol slows down the metabolism of fat and fat storages, which can in turn lead to weight gain,” Michalczyk explained. “Drinking also leads to hangovers for most of us, which impacts many aspects of a healthy lifestyle like sleep quality, and the desire to exercise and make healthy food choices the next day. This can create a negative cycle that doesn’t support a healthy lifestyle.”

While Michalczyk is aware of potential health benefits related to red wine, she believes the real benefits of alcohol have more to do with the enjoyment that can come from it.

“Alcohol can be enjoyable and celebratory, just like food — mixology can be a form of art,” she said. “I believe balanced and intentional usage is the best approach when drinking.”

How Alcohol Affects Your Liver

As noted above, alcohol is metabolized in the liver, and unfortunately there can be detrimental effects associated with this.

“Drinking more than the recommended daily amounts for men and women or binge drinking can cause damage [to] your liver, leading to diseases like fatty liver and cirrhosis,” registered dietitian Jen Scheinman said.

“Excessive alcohol consumption can also increase your risk of liver cancer,” she noted. “In fact, one study showed that just three drinks a day was enough to increase your risk of liver cancer. Since your liver helps process and eliminate alcohol from your body, if you already have liver disease, it’s best to completely avoid it.”

How Alcohol Affects Your Risk Of Cancer

Besides increasing your chances of liver cancer, alcohol consumption raises your risk of developing other types of cancer, too.

“There are a few ways that alcohol can impact your risk of cancer,” Scheinman said. “First, the breaking down of alcohol in your body produces acetaldehyde, which is a toxic chemical that can cause damage to your DNA and may cause cancer. Alcohol can also cause oxidative stress inside the body, which causes further damage to the cells.”

Further, she said, alcohol can affect the absorption of important nutrients like B vitamins and vitamins C and E. “Low levels of many vitamins and antioxidants are associated with a higher risk of cancer,” Scheinman noted. “Alcohol can also raise levels of hormones like estrogen, which can increase breast cancer risk.”

So, do you need to give up alcohol altogether? If you’re generally healthy, you certainly don’t have to ― although you’d be hard-pressed to find a health expert who will suggest you drink alcohol to improve your health.

If you are going to drink, research shows that taking breaks from alcohol can be beneficial to your overall health. And it’s always important to consume alcohol in moderation, no matter what type you’re drinking.

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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