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Drinking and Your Health

Topic Overview

Alcohol can be a safe and enjoyable part of life. If you choose to drink alcohol, the key is to keep your drinking at low to moderate levels.

People who drink too much are hurting their health. Heavy drinking can cause all kinds of problems, from stomach and sexual problems to stroke and liver disease. It can also lead to problems at work, school, or home, and to drunk driving and violence.

What health problems can drinking cause?

Drinking too much harms your liver, nervous system, heart, and brain. It can cause health problems or make them worse. These problems include:

Alcohol and your heart

Light to moderate drinking may actually help your heart. Research shows that people who have 1 or 2 drinks a day are less likely to get heart disease than people who don't drink any alcohol or who drink larger amounts.

But alcohol also can make heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure more likely. If you don't drink now, don't start drinking for your heart. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet will help your heart without the risks of alcohol.

How much drinking is safe?

Drinking alcohol isn't harmful unless you drink too much—and what is a safe amount for one person may be too much for another. Because of things like age, sex, weight, and health history, alcohol affects people differently. But here's what experts say:

  • For the best health:1
    • Women should have no more than 1 drink a day or 7 drinks a week. A standard drink is 1 can of beer, 1 glass of wine, or 1 mixed drink.
    • Men should have no more than 2 drinks a day or 14 drinks a week.
    • Both men and women age 65 and older should limit themselves to 1 drink a day.
  • You are putting your health at risk if you are:2
    • A woman who has more than 3 drinks at one time or more than 7 drinks a week.
    • A man who has more than 4 drinks at one time or more than 14 drinks a week.

Drinking has a greater effect on women because they typically weigh less. But this isn't the only reason. Women's bodies have less water than men's bodies. Alcohol mixes with body water, so alcohol is more concentrated and more "powerful" in women than in men. Think of putting a drop of red food coloring in both a small and a large cup of water. The water in the smaller cup will be much redder.

To find out if the amount of alcohol you drink could be harmful, take a short quiz:

Interactive Tool: Do You Have a Drinking Problem?

It's important to remember that the only way to guarantee that drinking alcohol will not harm you at all is to not drink at all.

Need help cutting back or quitting?

If you're worried about your health and want to stop drinking or cut back on how much you drink, your doctor can help you. For more information about quitting drinking, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Alcohol Problems: How to Stop Drinking.

To get some tips on how to limit how much alcohol you drink, see:

When is ANY drinking unhealthy or unsafe?

There are certain times when drinking any amount of alcohol is unhealthy. You should not drink if:

  • You need to drive a car or operate other machinery.
  • You are pregnant. Drinking during pregnancy makes a miscarriage or fetal alcohol syndrome more likely. A child who was exposed to alcohol in the womb may have physical and emotional problems. These problems can range from mild difficulties to severe birth defects.
  • You take certain medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether you can safely drink alcohol with any of the medicines you are taking. Common medicines that interact with alcohol include:
    • Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol).
    • Antibiotics.
    • Antihistamines.
    • Aspirin and other medicines to prevent clotting of blood (anticoagulants).
    • Tranquilizers.
    • Some medicines to treat depression (antidepressants) or other mental disorders.
    • Medicines to treat diabetes (hypoglycemics).
    • Any medicine that can make you drowsy (check the label).
  • You have certain health problems. Ask your doctor whether you can safely drink alcohol if you have any of the following problems:
    • Liver, stomach, and intestine problems.
    • Heart failure and high blood pressure.
    • Certain blood disorders.
    • Problems with alcohol abuse.
    • Mental health problems.

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Web Address: www.niaaa.nih.gov

References

Citations

  1. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). Substance abuse among older adults. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP), Series 26 (DHHS Publication No. SMA 08-3918). Available online: http://store.samhsa.gov/product/TIP-26-Substance-Abuse-Among-Older-Adults/SMA08-3918.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2005). Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much: A Clinician's Guide (NIH Publication No. 07-3769). Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health. Also available online: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Practitioner/cliniciansGuide2005/clinicians_guide.htm.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Peter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Last Revised January 17, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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