Alcohol-related deaths are the *third* leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.
The risks of drinking are easy to sweep under the rubber bar mat. You might shrug off heavy drinking, as long as it doesn’t result in drunk driving or blacking out. However, alcohol-related deaths are the third-leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Heavy drinking has many negative effects on the body, impacting everything from the skin to the brain. That said, your liver definitely takes the biggest punch. In fact, close to half of alcohol-related deaths in 2017 stemmed from liver conditions like fatty liver, alcohol hepatitis, and cirrhosis, according to NIAAA.
The Role of the Liver
Your liver is the largest solid organ in your body, and it grows to about the size of a football by adulthood. It helps remove toxins from the blood (including alcohol), stores glycogen for energy, and produces bile for aiding digestion.
Your liver is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and binge drinking. That’s because it’s the liver’s job to break down alcohol (and other harmful substances) to clear it out of your system.
That said, your liver has its limits. The liver can handle one “standard” drink per hour, which equates to:
- 12 oz of beer
- 5 oz of wine
- 1.5 oz of hard liquor
The Science Behind Liver Damage
Here’s the problem: As the liver breaks down alcohol, it releases additional toxins as a byproduct. The most notable and infamous toxin is acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is a well-studied carcinogen, meaning it is a cancer-causing agent. Thankfully, your body quickly breaks acetaldehyde down into a less toxic substance called acetate. Still, acetaldehyde wreaks havoc during its short life. Not only does it damage liver cells and cause inflammation in the area, but it also damages DNA and prevents the body from repairing it.
Every once in a while, this process isn’t so bad. However, repeated damage over the course of a lifetime can really add up. This liver damage can increase the risk of certain types of cancer (namely cancer of the liver, colorectal, breast, mouth and throat, larynx, and esophagus).
Alcohol and Fatty Liver Disease
Beyond cancer, damage from excessive drinking can also lead to alcoholic fatty liver disease (FLD) and cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. These can be deadly, and they’re one of the three fatalities of the “deaths of despair” (along with deaths by suicide and opioid overdose) that are on the rise in the U.S.
The more you drink, the higher the risk of FLD and cancers. That’s why experts recommend no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women.
Worried about your alcohol intake?
- 3 weird things about acetaldehyde. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)
- Alcohol and cancer. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)
- Alcohol facts and statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)
- Alcohol metabolism: an update. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2007. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease. American Addiction Centers Resource, 2020. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)
- Fatty liver disease. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)
- Your liver. Jacksonville, FL: Nemours Foundation. (Accessed on June 18, 2020)