Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits

Drinking alcohol is a health risk regardless of the amount.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Research on alcohol suggests a sobering conclusion: Drinking alcohol in any amount carries a health risk. While the risk is low for moderate intake, the risk goes up as the amount you drink goes up.

Many people drink alcohol as a personal preference, during social activities, or as a part of cultural and religious practices. People who choose not to drink make that choice for the same reasons. Knowing your personal risk based on your habits can help you make the best decision for you.

The evidence for moderate alcohol use in healthy adults is still being studied. But good evidence shows that drinking high amounts of alcohol are clearly linked to health problems.

Here's a closer look at alcohol and health.

Defining moderate alcohol use

Moderate alcohol use may not mean the same thing in research studies or among health agencies.

In the United States, moderate drinking for healthy adults is different for men and women. It means on days when a person does drink, women do not have more than one drink and men do not have more than two drinks.

Examples of one drink include:

  • 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer
  • 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters) of wine
  • 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters) of hard liquor or distilled spirits

Health agencies outside the U.S. may define one drink differently.

The term "moderate" also may be used differently. For example, it may be used to define the risk of illness or injury based on the number of drinks a person has in a week.

Risks of moderate alcohol use

The bottom line is that alcohol is potentially addictive, can cause intoxication, and contributes to health problems and preventable deaths. If you already drink at low levels and continue to drink, risks for these issues appear to be low. But the risk is not zero.

For example, any amount of drinking increases the risk of breast cancer and colorectal cancer. As consumption goes up, the risk goes up for these cancers. It is a tiny, but real, increased risk.

Drinking also adds calories that can contribute to weight gain. And drinking raises the risk of problems in the digestive system.

In the past, moderate drinking was thought to be linked with a lower risk of dying from heart disease and possibly diabetes. After more analysis of the research, that doesn't seem to be the case. In general, a healthy diet and physical activity have much greater health benefits than alcohol and have been more extensively studied.

Risks of heavy alcohol use

Heavy drinking, including binge drinking, is a high-risk activity.

The definition of heavy drinking is based on a person's sex. For women, more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks a week is heavy drinking. For men, heavy drinking means more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week.

Binge drinking is behavior that raises blood alcohol levels to 0.08%. That usually means four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks within two hours for men.

Heavy drinking can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:

  • Certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer, breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and liver.
  • Liver disease.
  • Cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and stroke.

Heavy drinking also has been linked to intentional injuries, such as suicide, as well as accidental injury and death.

During pregnancy, drinking may cause the unborn baby to have brain damage and other problems. Heavy drinking also may result in alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

When to avoid alcohol

In some situations, the risk of drinking any amount of alcohol is high. Avoid all alcohol if you:

  • Are trying to get pregnant or are pregnant.
  • Take medicine that has side effects if you drink alcohol.
  • Have alcohol use disorder.
  • Have medical issues that alcohol can worsen.

In the United States, people younger than age 21 are not legally able to drink alcohol.

When taking care of children, avoid alcohol. And the same goes for driving or if you need to be alert and able to react to changing situations.

Deciding about drinking

Lots of activities affect your health. Some are riskier than others. When it comes to alcohol, if you don't drink, don't start for health reasons.

Drinking moderately if you're otherwise healthy may be a risk you're willing to take. But heavy drinking carries a much higher risk even for those without other health concerns. Be sure to ask your healthcare professional about what's right for your health and safety.

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June 21, 2024 See more In-depth