Would you like some gout with that martini? Alcohol affects more than your liver

Celebrations often call for alcohol and have led to a pro-drinking culture.  Credit: Robert Laberge/Allsport

Most people have heard of cirrhosis of the liver, but research increasingly shows how abusing booze can ravage nearly every part of the body. Just in time for the holidays, a head-to-toe look at how a long- term drinking problem can affect the body.



Prolonged heavy drinking may produce alcoholic optic neuritis, which in exceptional cases progresses to blindness. This is because drinking alcohol can cause vitamin B1 and zinc deficiencies.


Snoring is abnormally frequent after having several alcoholic drinks in the evening before going to bed. This is due to the relaxing effects of alcohol on the pharyngeal (nasal) muscles.


Regular drinking increases the risk of certain cancers.

Nearly 50 percent of cancers of the mouth, pharynx (tonsils) and larynx (voice box) are associated with heavy drinking. If people smoke as well, the increase in risk is more dramatic.


Alcoholics have poor dental health, due to poor oral hygiene. Alcohol also increases the risk of gum disease.


Alcohol is a diuretic, so it causes accelerated dehydration.

A lack of body fluid causes dry and brittle hair. Excessive alcohol consumption can deplete levels of iron in the body, leading to hair loss.


Gout, a condition that causes inflammation of the joints due to the build-up of crystals of uric acid, is strongly linked to heavy drinking. It is generally a genetically inherited condition, but it is exacerbated by alcohol.


Heavy drinking can lead to a condition called alcoholic myositis, an inflammation of the muscles, mainly in the shoulders and chest. This painful condition is quite common among heavy drinkers.

Intoxication increases the risk of falls, as consumption of alcoholic beverages can impair vision, as well as cause dizziness, disorientation and disruption of the brain's judgment of distances and heights. About one-quarter of the people with fractures due to injuries from falls have been drinking.


Strong, healthy nails rely on a balanced intake of nutrients and plenty of water, both of which are depleted with increased alcohol consumption.

In some cases, poor nails may also point to iron deficiency or liver problems, which can both be caused by a high intake of alcohol.


Studies have found that high levels of alcohol consumption can exacerbate psoriasis, a skin condition that appears as reddish spots and patches covered with silvery scales. The skin may also become dryer due to dehydration caused by drinking.

Bruising is also increased, due to a lack of vitamin C.


Heavy, prolonged alcohol abuse causes dementia (permanent loss of brain cells). Without treatment, it leads to progressive mental deterioration.


There is little evidence to back up reports that red wine is good for the heart.

Cardiomyopathy (inflammation of the heart muscle) is common in alcoholics. Symptoms include chest pain, palpitations, coughing, fatigue and breathing difficulties.

Long-term, heavy drinkers frequently complain of cardiac problems, suggesting there is close relationship between the duration of intoxication and the development of cardiovascular lesions.

Alcohol is also linked to arrhythmia (fluttering or irregular beating of the heart), which in serious cases causes the heart to stop beating.


Gastritis (chronic stomach upset) can be caused by short-term alcohol abuse: drinks inflame the stomach lining and can lead to vomiting, which, if chronic, can lead to tears of the esophagus.

Digestive hemorrhages are common in alcoholics. They are due to the rupture of esophageal veins, changes to the gastric mucus or ulceration.

Chronic gastritis can result in anemia and malnutrition.

Having a meal an hour before drinking can significantly slow down the effects of alcohol on the stomach. Drinking milk helps to protect the stomach lining.

Digestive tract

Chronic heavy drinkers have a higher incidence of esophageal cancer than the general population. The risk appears to increase as alcohol consumption increases.

An estimated 75 percent of esophageal cancers in the United Kingdom are attributable to excessive alcohol consumption.


Heavy alcohol abuse is the main factor in esophageal cancer in the Western world. The risk is considerably increased where there is combined alcohol and tobacco addiction.

Cancer of the esophagus is 35 times greater in alcohol and tobacco-addicted patients than in non-smokers who do not drink.


Large quantities of alcohol can cause hemorrhagic lesions in the wall of the intestine. It also affects the contraction of the intestine, leading to diarrhea.

Chronic alcohol abuse may result in abnormalities in the way the body processes nutrients.

Reduced levels of iron, zinc, vitamin E and some B vitamins are common in heavy drinkers, and have been associated with some cancers. Levels of vitamin A, said to have anti-cancer properties, are depressed in the liver and esophagus of heavy drinkers.


Colon cancer has been linked to beer consumption a recent study indicates that as few as two pints per day negates any beneficial effects of a correct diet on decreasing the risk of colon cancer.

Although the study suggests that a diet high in folic acid a B vitamin found in fresh fruits and vegetables reduces the risk for colon cancer, it also warns that alcohol consumption may counter this protective action.

Other studies have found a small but consistent association between alcohol consumption and colon cancer, although the cause is still uncertain.


The liver is responsible for the elimination of 95 percent of ingested alcohol.

For those who have five drinks a day, the risk of cirrhosis of the liver is five times greater than for non-drinkers. Women are at greater risk than men.

Prolonged heavy drinking has been associated with primary liver cancer, and cirrhosis is believed to induce the cancer.

There are also strong links between hepatitis the virus that causes inflammation of the liver and high alcohol consumption.


High alcohol consumption can cause acute inflammation of the pancreas, a very dangerous and painful condition that feels much like a ruptured appendix and can lead to death.


A recent study showed that women who consumed as little as one drink a day had a 9 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer compared with women who abstained. A further 9 percent risk was added for each drink, up to five drinks a day.

Other studies have found that heavy alcohol consumption has been associated with a small (averaging 10 percent) increase in a woman's risk of breast cancer.

Some studies indicate a more indirect effect of alcohol even moderate levels on breast cancer, in that alcohol increases estrogen levels in premenopausal women which, in turn, may promote breast cancer.

Sex organs

One study found that women who drink up to five units of alcohol a week are twice as likely to conceive within six months as those drinking 10 or more units a week.

Contrary to popular belief, excess alcohol in women reduces both the likelihood of orgasm and enthusiasm for lovemaking. In men, it can cause impotence and reduce the ability to orgasm.


Whatever you eat or drink while pregnant goes directly through your bloodstream into the placenta.

Some experts believe that drinking any alcohol while pregnant increases health risks for the baby, while others believe a small amount does not have any damaging effects.

Some studies have found that moderate alcohol intake interferes with the unborn baby's ability to get enough oxygen and nourishment for normal cell development to take place.


Prolonged alcohol abuse can lead to inflammation of the nerves in the arms and legs, leading to symptoms such as tingling and pain. It is caused mainly by vitamin deficiency, and isn't permanent. But the only way to get rid of the symptoms is to stop drinking immediately.


Alcohol has been associated with suppression of the immune system, which makes chronic alcohol abusers more susceptible to various infectious diseases and, theoretically, to cancer. It also increases the risk of pneumonia and tuberculosis.


Tests show heavy drinking affects memory, learning, reaction time, spatial perception, abstract thinking and complex reasoning.

Memory and judgment problems are the result of the toxic effects of alcohol on nerve cells.

If you drink heavily over a long period and then stop suddenly, you can be susceptible to fits, seizures and blackouts, which can be fatal or have permanent effects on the brain.

Stopping drinking after a prolonged period of abuse is more dangerous than stopping heroin abuse, and can even be fatal.

What's your opinion on drinking alcohol? Sound off on our message boards

Discuss This Article