Beer lovers and wine connoisseurs beware: You can have “too much of a good thing”—so much so that over-indulging in alcohol can slowly and steadily kill you.
The reality is you don’t have to be drinking 101-proof Wild Turkey to be at risk of dying from alcohol; those “99 bottles” of beer or wine in your fridge or cellar are equally dangerous. If you’re a heavy drinker, over-consumption of beer and wine can cause serious, life-threatening damage to your health in the same way too much gin, whiskey or vodka can. Over time, the physical effects of excess alcohol in any form or concentration are the same, spelling a long, gradual and painful death via progressive organ failure.
What follows is a graphic and informative account of just what that can look like.
What’s Considered Heavy Drinking?
It starts with the cause of death: heavy drinking. But what is heavy drinking? The answer may surprise you.
Heavy drinking, also called “high-risk drinking,” isn’t so much what you drink as it is how much you drink. If you’re a grown man consuming 15 drinks or more on a weekly basis—be they 15 12-ounce beers or 15 one-and-a-half ounce shots of hard liquor—you meet the definition of a “heavy drinker,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you’re a woman consuming eight drinks or more a week, you also qualify.
By this same definition, “too much alcohol” (as in heavy drinking that can exert a serious, potentially life-threatening toll on your health) can be the equivalent of as little as two or more drinks a day for a man and one or more drinks a day for a woman.
Alcohol and the Liver
Long-term heavy drinking can be permanently toxic to the liver. At only three pounds, and shaped like a football, this unusually hardy organ can only process so much alcohol.
10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers thus develop cirrhosis of the liver, according to the American Liver Foundation. Cirrhosis is the most advanced stage in alcohol-induced liver disease, but its trajectory can begin far earlier, starting with alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease is a reversible condition: a cessation of drinking can restore liver health and function. What’s more troublesome is that symptoms of fatty liver disease can often go undetected, making the progression of damage to the liver hard to notice (and stop) before it’s too late.
A next step in the direction of end-stage cirrhosis is alcoholic hepatitis, marked by fat deposits in liver cells and inflammation and mild scarring of the liver. As many as 35 percent of heavy
drinkers will reportedly acquire alcoholic hepatitis, by which time more than half of them will already have a death sentence in the form of cirrhosis.
Not all heavy drinkers follow a clean progression from alcoholic fatty liver disease to cirrhosis. Some heavy drinkers will wake up one day to a seemingly sudden diagnosis of cirrhosis, or severe hepatitis, having not experienced any previous warning signs or symptoms of an over-taxed liver. By that time, their liver, a now hardened, distorted lump of scar tissue, is so debilitated that it’s vulnerable to even uglier-sounding complications affecting other key organs of the body. These can co-occur with liver failure:
- Build-up of fluid in the abdomen
- Bleeding from veins in the esophagus or stomach
- Enlarged spleen
- Brain disorders and coma
- Kidney failure
- Liver cancer
Alcohol and Brain Damage
Too much alcohol also causes brain damage that if not caught early enough can kill you. With advanced liver disease, brain disorders and coma can occur; but there are other little-known ways that the brain deteriorates in the presence of chronic alcohol abuse.
Excessive alcohol can lead to a deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine), a nutrient that’s critical to healthy organ function, especially the brain—so much so that its depletion can cause significant brain damage and impairment. As many as 80 percent of heavy drinkers have a vitamin B1 deficiency, which in some cases can lead to a condition known as “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome” (WKS). The disease gets its double name from the two separate syndromes that describe it: a short-lived, severe condition known as Wernicke encephalopathy, and a long-lasting, debilitating condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis. Together the two syndromes manifest as symptoms of severe confusion, memory loss, and paralysis of the nerves around the eyes, greatly compromised muscle coordination and serious learning difficulties. One in four patients with WKS will sustain permanent brain damage. In its more advanced stages, WKS is also not treatable, and its only real recourse is palliative care.
Too much alcohol also shrinks brain tissue over time, causing memory problems and a reduction in cognitive processing.
Alcohol and the Heart
The heart is also no stranger to the fatal effects of alcohol abuse. Heart disease, the leading cause of death in this country, is a common extension of chronic heavy drinking. Studies in recent years have touted the health benefits of drinking red wine in moderation. But studies also show drinking three or more glasses of wine daily actually raises your risks of coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke, by increasing the blood levels of certain fats known as triglycerides.
“Alcoholic cardiomyopathy” describes the gradual weakening of the heart muscle over time. The heart begins to droop and stretch, finding it increasingly hard to contract and in turn pump blood to other key organs in the body. The resulting blood flow shortage can cause severe organ damage; it can also end in heart failure and death.
Excess alcohol can also trigger an abnormal heart rate, also known as an “arrhythmia.” The two arrhythmias brought on by heavy drinking are:
- Atrial fibrillation, when the upper chambers of the heart become too weak to contract, leading to blood clotting that causes strokes (another leading cause of death).
- Ventricular tachycardia, a condition affecting the lower chambers of the heart, by which the heart beats too fast to pump out enough blood between beats; in this case, cardiac arrest and sudden death can occur.