How Does Your Drinking Impact Your Long-Term Health?

By May Wilkerson 07/03/15

Experts agree staying within “healthy” drinking guidelines is the best way to avoid substance abuse issues.

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Drinking can have lasting effects on your body and brain, but many people don’t realize how their alcohol intake may impact them in the long-term, TIME reports.

So how much should you be drinking to minimize risks? According to U.S. Dietary Guidelines, up to one drink daily for women and up to two for men is okay.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) also recommends “low risk” amounts of alcohol that minimize risks of developing a problem with alcohol abuse or dependence. For women, this is no more than three drinks in a day and a maximum seven a week. For men, it’s no more than four drinks in a day and 14 in a week.

Drinking at these levels may be just as safe as not drinking at all, according to NIAAA director Dr. George Koob. A growing body of research suggests that drinking a moderate amount of red wine may even have benefits for long-term heart health.

However, studies into the health benefits of moderate drinking remain controversial, since it may not be the wine itself but other aspects of people’s lifestyles that boost their health, says Koob. Also, the effects of alcohol on the body vary from person to person.

In general, experts agree that staying within “healthy” drinking guidelines is the best way to avoid health and substance abuse issues later on.

Experts also warn about the risks of binge drinking, which the NIH defines as five or more drinks for men and four or more for women, within a two-hour period. Evidence suggests that routine binge drinking can harm the frontal cortex and areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning and decision-making.

Over time, heavy alcohol intake can slow down neurotransmitters in your brain that help your body respond to stimuli and regulate your moods. But quitting drinking for a period of time can help the brain reverse possible damage.

“Abstaining from alcohol over several months to a year may allow structural brain changes to partially correct,” says the NIH. “Abstinence also can help reverse negative effects on thinking skills, including problem­ solving, memory, and attention.”

Other potential long-term effects of heavy drinking include damage to heart muscles, liver, pancreas, and immune system function. It can also raise the risk for certain cancers, including mouth and breast cancer, and some people are at risk of becoming alcohol-dependent.

To keep tabs on your drinking, you can download an app or take this alcohol assessment quiz, to help you avoid issues later on.

“It creeps up on people,” says Koob.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.