Binge Drinking Side Effects
About 17.6 million adults in the U.S. currently suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. Binge drinking is a common practice in the U.S., with one in six adults consuming about eight drinks per binge episode. Approximately 92% of U.S. adults who drink excessively reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.1 In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 13.8% of youth ages 12 to 20 binge drank in the past 30 days, a slight decrease from the prior year.2 Binge drinking on the weekend was reported by 24% of teens and young adults.3 Older people also reported binge drinking, and did so more frequently than younger individuals, with five to six episodes per month. Men are more prone to binge drinking than women and typically exhibit more violent behavior as a result.1
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking gets its name because participants drink heavily for short periods of time, leading to a legal level of intoxication within a couple of hours. The definition of binge drinking varies slightly by organization.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days.4
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically requires that women consume four drinks and men consume five drinks in about two hours.4
Epidemiological studies have yielded widely varying prevalence rates, in part due to the following controversies surrounding the term binge drinking.3
- An inadequate definition.
- The minimum amount of consumption that is considered to be a problem has not been established.
- A standard drinking unit (SDU) that is common to all countries has not been established.
- The period of time that is considered to be “a single event” is unspecified.
The Risks of Binge Drinking
Anyone who regularly consumes alcohol in excessive amounts can eventually develop moderate, severe or life-threatening side effects. Research shows that students who engaged in repeated episodes of binge drinking were more likely than other students to experience memory impairment when intoxicated.5 Excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking negatively impact many bodily systems and functions, making one vulnerable to specific types of cancer and more prone to involuntary and intentional injuries.6
- Cardiovascular system: Cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of heart muscle), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), stroke and high blood pressure.
- Gastrointestinal/digestive system: Steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis; pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion; poor dietary habits and decreased appetite.
- Immune system: Higher risk of pneumonia and tuberculosis.
- An increased risk of throat, esophageal, liver and breast cancer.
- Heightened risk of accidental or intentional injury including motor vehicle crashes.
- Increased chance of practicing unsafe sex and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
- Poor neuropsychological functioning.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?
As many as 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis and of these, 55% already have cirrhosis.7 A heavy binge drinking episode in patients who chronically consume alcohol is the most common reason for hospital admissions for steatohepatitis, a type of fatty liver disease characterized by inflammation and concurrent fat accumulation in the liver. Binge drinking alters the levels of several cellular components and dramatically amplifies damage in a liver chronically subjected to alcohol. Some of the factors that impact toxicity of alcohol to the liver are obesity, resistance to insulin, chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus, being female and tobacco consumption. Liver damage from alcohol manifests as fatty liver, hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.3
Alcoholic fatty liver disease: This results from the deposition of fat in liver cells and is the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease. Although usually asymptomatic, people may experience fatigue, weakness and discomfort localized in the right upper abdomen. Liver enzymes may be elevated, however liver function tests are often normal. This is a widely prevalent disease among heavy drinkers. The good news is that the damage may be reversed if the person abstains from alcohol.7
Alcoholic hepatitis: This is characterized by fat deposition in liver cells, inflammation and mild scarring of the liver. Symptoms may include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and jaundice. Liver enzymes are elevated and liver function tests may be abnormal. Mild alcoholic hepatitis may be reversed if the person abstains from alcohol. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can occur suddenly and lead to serious complications including liver failure and death.7
Alcoholic cirrhosis: The most advanced type of alcohol-induced liver injury, this is characterized by disruption of the normal structure of the liver in which fibrosis causes hard scar tissue to form in place of soft, healthy tissue. An estimated 10% to 20% of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis. The symptoms can be similar to those of severe alcoholic hepatitis. Cirrhosis is the most advanced type of alcohol-related liver disease and the damage is irreversible. However, abstinence may improve symptoms and prevent further damage.7
How Does Binge Drinking Worsen Liver Damage?
An animal model study published in Hepatology International explored the underlying reasons binge drinking compounds liver damage. Researchers conducted experiments on rats to analyze how binge drinking exacerbates liver damage already caused by sustained heavy drinking. Specifically, the researchers looked at the effects of binge drinking on specialized proteins called histones, which normally protect human DNA from undergoing destructive changes. The researchers fed a group of rats a steady diet of an alcohol-containing liquid for one month and then exposed them to an additional amount of alcohol that would result in a drunken state three times during a span of 36 hours. The rats were examined for signs of histone damage four hours after conclusion of the final binging session.8
The researchers concluded that in combination with regular heavy drinking, binge drinking leads to an alteration in normal histone function. This alteration leads to a loss of the body’s ability to keep individual units of DNA intact and working properly. The change in DNA function essentially causes the body to “misread” the genetic instructions responsible for maintaining liver health. The resulting production of extra copies of DNA appears to lead to liver inflammation and may eventually contribute to cirrhosis or the onset of liver cancer.8
The study’s authors note that in addition to liver damage, binge drinking may ultimately negatively impact the overall health of affected individuals. Liver damage can trigger a cascade effect and lead to significant damage of other major organs or organ systems including the brain, cardiovascular system and kidneys. The authors hope that these findings will contribute to the development of improved treatment methods for liver issues that arise from excessive alcohol consumption.8
- Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm Updated October 16, 2015. Accessed August 20, 2016.
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics Updated June 2016. Accessed August 20, 2016.
- Llerena S, Arias-Loste MT, Puente A, Cabezas J, Crespo J, Fábrega E. Binge drinking: Burden of liver disease and beyond. World J Hepatol. 2015;7(27):2703-2715. doi:10.4254/wjh.v7.i27.2703.
- Drinking Levels Defined. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking Accessed August 20, 2016.
- What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm Published July 2004. Accessed August 20, 2016.
- Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body Accessed August 20, 2016.
- Alcohol-Related Liver Disease. American Liver Foundation website. http://www.liverfoundation.org/abouttheliver/info/alcohol/ Updated January 20, 2015. Accessed August 20, 2016.
- Aroor, AR, Restrepo, RJ, Kharbanda, KK, et al. Epigenetic histone modifications in a clinically relevant rat model of chronic ethanol-binge-mediated liver injury. Hepatol Int (2014) 8: 421. doi:10.1007/s12072-014-9546-4