Skip Navigation Bar
NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Feature:
Rethinking Drinking

The Importance of Drinking Patterns

Symptoms: Alcohol's Impact on the Human Body

Too much drinking (see box left)—on a single occasion or over time—can take a serious toll. Most people recognize that drinking too much can lead to accidents and dependence. But that's only part of the story.

  • Brain—Mood and behavior change; thinking clearly and coordinated movement are impaired.
  • Heart—Cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of the heart muscle), arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), stroke, and high blood pressure.
  • Liver—Steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
  • Pancreas—Pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling that prevents proper digestion.
  • Cancer—Increased risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and breast cancers.
  • Immune System—Reduced ability to ward off infections; chronic drinkers more likely than non-drinkers to contract pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other diseases.

The effects of alcohol, harmful or otherwise, depend largely on an individual's drinking pattern—how often he or she drinks alcohol, and how much alcohol is consumed per drinking occasion.

Low-risk Drinking Limits, for men on a single day, no more than 4 drinks on any day and no more than 14 drinks per week. For women on a single day, no more than 3 drinks on any day and no more than 7 drinks per week. To stay at low-risk, keep with BOTH single-day AND weekly limits.

Click to enlarge image
Low-risk drinking limits

"Low-risk" is not "no risk."

Even within these limits, drinkers can have problems if they drink too quickly, have health problems, or are older. Based on your health and how alcohol affects you, you may need to drink less or not at all.

Heavy or "at-risk" drinking.

Generally for healthy adults, heavy drinking means more than the single-day or weekly amounts listed above. About one in four people who drink more already have an alcohol use disorder.

Binge Drinking.

Generally for healthy adults, heavy drinking means more than the single-day or weekly amounts listed above. About one in four people who drink more already have an alcohol use disorder.

Spring 2014 Issue: Volume 9 Number 1 Page 21