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One Major Side Effect of Drinking Alcohol Every Day, Says New Study

Alcohol use has long been linked with cancer, but a new study shows just how strong that link is.

The latest U.S. dietary guidelines, just released in December by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, deems it "healthy" for women to avail themselves of one alcoholic drink per day and men to have two. But many leading health experts found these guidelines too generous for men, and, according to a new study published last month in the European Heart Journal, simply having one "small" alcoholic drink per day—defined as 330ml of beer (less than your average 12-ounce can), or roughly eight tablespoons of wine—can have consequences for your body. Chiefly, it could put you at risk over time for developing atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat.

Meanwhile, the health effects of drinking alcohol in excess are well known. Alcohol contributes to weight gain, poor sleep, a risk of infertility, organ damage, and, according to research published in the journal Acta Psychiatra Scandinavica, if you're drinking so much that you've been hospitalized for alcohol use disorder, you could be cutting your life short by as much as 28 years. Given that alcohol use has been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic—according to a study of 6,000 Americans conducted by the Rand Corporation's American Life Panel and published on JAMA Network Open last year, binge drinking has been significantly increasing since the onset of COVID-related lockdowns, especially among female respondents—now's as good a time as ever to take a closer look at your own drinking habits.

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According to a new study, there's yet another major side effect of drinking alcohol every day that you should be cognizant of: You could be raising your risk of dying from cancer. Though the link between cancer and alcohol has long been established—the CDC notes that drinking alcohol specifically raises your risk of getting "mouth and throat, voice box, esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast cancers"—a study published in January in the journal Cancer Epidemiology found that an outsize number of cancer cases in every U.S. state and Washington, D.C. were linked to alcohol use.

"The proportion of alcohol-related cancers was far greater for some individual cancer types," write the researchers from the American Cancer Society. "For oral cavity/pharyngeal cancer cases, for example, it ranged from 36% in Utah to 62.5% in Delaware and was 45% or more in 45 states and the District of Columbia. By sex, alcohol-related cancer cases and deaths for most evaluated cancer types were higher among men, in part reflecting higher levels of alcohol consumption among men."

The researchers note that this is the first study to attempt to directly account for the number of cancer cases—and the deaths resulting from those cancers—in the United States. On average, during the years of 2013 to 2016, the study notes that "alcohol consumption accounts for 4.8% of cancer cases and 3.2% of cancer deaths, or about 75,200 cancer cases and 18,950 cancer deaths annually."

If you or someone you know may be exhibiting signs of an alcohol use disorder, it may be time to seek out professional help. If you're not confident as to whether or not your drinking rises to the level of a problem, know that the symptoms of alcohol use disorder, according to the experts at the Mayo Clinic, include strong cravings, high anxiety, sweating, trembling, nausea, giving up things you love to drink, and developing a high tolerance. And the #1 sign your drinking is out of control, according to Robert Doyle, MD, a psychiatrist at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the book Almost Alcoholic, is if you try to stop and you simply can't do it.

"Don't drink for a month," he advises. "If that's hard for you, then maybe it's a problem. Or ask the people around you what they think. If it's causing them distress, then it's a significant problem."

For even more ways that alcohol is impacting your body, read on, because we've included here just some of the surprising ways alcohol can cause complications to your bodily functions—all according to K. V. Narayanan Menon, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic. And if you're considering scaling back on your own drinking habits, a great way to start is to avoid The Most Dangerous Alcoholic Drink for Your Body, According to Experts.


Alcohol Distracts Your Body From Other Processes

Woman suffering from stomach pain,laying in bed at home

"Once you take a drink, your body makes metabolizing it a priority—above processing anything else," Menon explains to the Cleveland Clinic. "Unlike proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, your body doesn't have a way to store alcohol, so it has to move to the front of the metabolizing line. This is why it affects your liver, as it's your liver's job to detoxify and remove alcohol from your blood."


You Can Develop Pancreatitis

Doctor examine an x-ray picture of pancreas

"People can develop pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, from alcohol abuse," Menon notes.

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Your Immune System Will Take a Hit

Sick woman with flu at home

"If you drink every day, or almost every day, you might notice that you catch colds, flu or other illnesses more frequently than people who don't drink," Menon notes. "This is because alcohol can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to infections."


It Causes Bacteria Growth

Weight gain

"Abusing alcohol causes bacteria to grow in your gut," Menon explains, "which can eventually migrate through the intestinal wall and into the liver, leading to liver damage." And for more unhealthy habits you should avoid, make sure you're fully up to speed on the Popular Drinks That Can Cause Lasting Damage to Your Body, According to Science.

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more about William