For so long, we’ve been told that “light” and “moderate” drinking is perfectly safe—and that it might even lower our risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Well, guess what? In a shocking turn of events, recent research has upended everything we know about what's considered a safe level of alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization now believes that any amount of drinking is detrimental to health.
Of course, you’re probably thinking, “I’m not a heavy drinker, so how much damage could a drink or two possibly do?” You’re in luck; this article contains answers.
How does alcohol cause health problems?
Two words: DNA damage. When you drink (once again, any amount of) alcohol, your body breaks it down into acetaldehyde, a chemical known to induce oxidative stress—an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants—a harmful process that can damage several cellular structures, including DNA. If not strictly controlled, oxidative stress can accelerate aging and damage healthy tissues, causing many health problems.
What kind of health problems are we talking about?
While this is certainly not an exhaustive list; the following are just some of the most well-documented adverse health effects of alcohol consumption.
High blood pressure, heart disease, and atrial fibrillation
According to a 2022 study published in JAMA Network Open, alcohol consumption of any amount (i.e., even light and moderate consumption) is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, including:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Coronary artery disease
- Myocardial infarction (“heart attack”)
- Heart failure
- Atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm, which raises the risk of blood clots and stroke)
Alcoholic liver disease
Here’s a sobering statistic: alcoholic liver disease kills about 22,000 people in the United States yearly. And if you think only chronic heavy drinkers are at risk, think again. According to this 2022 report, five years of drinking just two alcoholic beverages daily can damage the liver. And, of course, the damage worsens the more drinks you have—the same report states that 90% of individuals who have four drinks daily show signs of alcoholic fatty liver.
Want to keep your mind sharp as you age? Then maintaining a wide berth from alcohol is a good idea. Researchers in a 2022 study published in PLOS Medicine found that having just three cans of beer per week is linked to having higher levels of iron stored in the brain. And if you're wondering whether iron build-up in the brain is bad … know that scientists believe it's a marker (and very likely a contributor) of cognitive decline, along with a risk factor for neurodegenerative disorders.
The idea is to reduce your current alcoholic intake
If sobriety is achievable for you, good—go for it. But if the thought of completely cutting alcohol out of your life makes you anxious and miserable, you don’t have to go cold turkey to improve your health. Even reducing your intake by just a little bit could potentially add years to your life.
Medically Reviewed by:
Kimberly Langdon M.D. is a retired, board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with 19-years of clinical experience. She completed her OB/GYN residency program at The Ohio State University Medical Center After clinical practice, she founded a medical device company where she invented six patented medical devices for both life-threatening and non-life-threatening conditions.