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How Alcohol Can Damage your DNA

Reviewer Dr. Juan Harris MBA, MS, MCAP, CMHP, SAP, CIP, ICADC
Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

how alcohol can effect your DNADNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, and it represents the building blocks of your body and the hereditary material that makes you, you.  All of your cells have the same DNA, and it’s only yours. Your best friend has their own DNA, and it’s the same in every one of their cells too.

For a long time, it was assumed that DNA was stagnant and could not be changed. While this is still the running theory, epigenetics is the new study of changes to gene expression—not changes to the underlying DNA you have but changes to the expression. For example, something in your environment, like being exposed to toxic chemicals, may change gene expression. Similarly, what you eat and drink may change gene expression.

This is where alcohol comes in.

Can Alcohol Change or Damage Your DNA?

It’s been a long time since doctors, medical professionals, and laypeople discovered that drinking too much alcohol is bad for your health. Pregnant women shouldn’t drink because it may damage the fetus. Fatty liver and cirrhosis of the liver are common long-term health complications of drinking to excess for years. And numerous other health issues can be associated with alcoholism, including cancer.

Only recently has a reason been found for this positive correlation between alcohol consumption and cancer. As it turns out, alcohol can indeed damage DNA.

How Alcohol Affects DNA

This new research and the resulting findings come from Cambridge University’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

In a mouse study conducted by the Cambridge team, it was discovered that the blood-forming stem cells in DNA were actually the culprit. Alcohol damages DNA within these cells and particularly in a chemical compound called acetaldehyde. When alcohol is metabolized within the body, a byproduct of the metabolizing process is acetaldehyde. In effect, scientists call this byproduct an “alcohol metabolite.”

What essentially happens is that drinking too much means the body must struggle to metabolize all of the alcohol at once. Often, the body simply can’t do it. Therefore, this metabolizing process byproduct, or alcohol metabolite (acetaldehyde), builds up within the cells. This is not good for your health.

According to the scientists at the Cambridge lab, it is at this point that acetaldehyde wreaks havoc on the body’s DNA. Particularly, the lead scientist at Cambridge said that acetaldehyde negatively affects the stem cells of a person’s DNA, which are the stem cells that are tasked with making tissues for the body down the line. This means that the DNA damage could spread throughout the body.

Why Can’t Your Body Stop the Buildup of Acetaldehyde?

You may be wondering why it is that the human body can’t avoid damage to the DNA from alcohol. After all, shouldn’t there be something in the body that protects against the buildup of acetaldehyde?

There actually is something in the body that does this. It’s called ALDH, or acetaldehyde dehydrogenases. In most people who drink a glass of red wine with dinner every night, ALDH works to neutralize acetaldehyde. It does this by changing or metabolizing the alcohol into something called acetate, which is useful for the body as energy.

However, the same beneficial conversion process will not occur when a large amount of alcohol is consumed all at once, as is usually the case with individuals who struggle with alcoholism. The body becomes overrun, and the ALDH is unable to do its job completely, which causes the buildup and the DNA damage.

You may have heard of some Asian individuals also having trouble processing alcohol. For example, some Asians may end up with a red flush reaction when they drink just one beer or glass of wine. This is because many Asians have a mutation in the ALDH2 gene. This means that their bodies cannot process acetaldehyde. If these individuals continue to drink, there is an elevated risk of esophageal cancer.

Alcohol and Cancer Risks

It’s still not completely known how alcohol affects your risk of cancer. However, the scientists at Cambridge University did find that a buildup of acetaldehyde is likely to contribute to an individual’s risk of getting specific types of cancer. These specific risky types of cancer include cancers of the bowel, esophagus, breast, larynx, throat, liver, and mouth. In some individuals, even light drinking can lead to these forms of cancer. More often, the risks are associated with drinking to excess on a regular basis and over a longer period of time.

What Are Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

Because the risk of developing cancer that was caused by alcohol is more likely in an individual who drinks to excess on a regular basis and over a long period of time, it is important to understand what this actually looks like. Below, we will explore what alcohol abuse and alcoholism actually are.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

Understanding how alcohol affects the body is a complex category of research that is still ongoing. While we don’t know everything about how alcohol affects the body, researchers and medical professionals have concluded these major consequences and effects:

• Cancer: Various cancers are highly associated with alcohol consumption. Researchers are still trying to understand why that is, but the research associated with the buildup of acetaldehyde as outlined above seems to have uncovered part of the reason.

• Liver Inflammation: One organ that is greatly affected by alcohol is the liver. There are numerous problems that may occur, most of which include inflammation. These are fatty liver and cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, and fibrosis.

• Heart Damage: The heart is also negatively affected by alcohol in that it can cause an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), drooping and stretching of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), and high blood pressure. These symptoms can easily lead to a higher risk of strokes and heart attacks.

• Immune System Deficiencies: Finally, chronic drinking may cause a higher likeliness of contracting additional illnesses and diseases because the immune system becomes depressed. Tuberculosis and pneumonia are rather common in those who struggle with alcohol use disorder.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

The brain is also affected by alcohol in several ways. Again, experts are still researching how alcohol affects the brain, but certain conclusions have already been made. The following are effects on the brain that consistently occur with the overconsumption of alcohol on a regular basis:

• Initial Effects: During and directly after drinking a large quantity of alcohol, individuals will have slowed reaction times, difficulty concentrating, lapsed memory, and even blackouts.

• Long-term Effects: After drinking large quantities for a long period of time, individuals may end up with brain deficits that last a lifetime. These deficits often have to do with memory issues and depression.

The latter occurs because alcohol increases dopamine release in the brain. This can essentially cause overuse of, or a malfunction in, the brain’s dopamine-release reward center, which can then lead to dopamine issues—and therefore, happiness issues—down the line.

How Much Should You Be Drinking?

Even though it is possible to suffer health damage from alcohol, it’s also important to know that alcohol has been consumed for thousands of years. Throughout time, many people have consumed alcohol in moderation and been able to stay healthy and live long into their 80s and 90s.

Still, the limits on how much alcohol you can safely drink in a day may surprise you.

Let’s first review what a standard drink looks like. The following is a list of the alcoholic equivalents of one standard drink:

• 12 ounces of beer
• 5 ounces of wine
• 1.5 ounces of 80 proof (40 percent alcohol) liquor

You’ll notice that these amounts may be smaller than you thought. It’s not uncommon for restaurants and bars to create mixed drinks that have 2 or more ounces of 80 proof liquor, for example. Pours of wine may be in the 6- or 7-ounce range, and beers larger than 12 ounces are extremely common.

Still, these are the standard amounts that medical professionals have allocated for various types of alcohol. Now, let’s explore how much alcohol you should be drinking on a daily basis.

• Women: Up to 1 standard drink per day and not more than 7 drinks per week
• Men: Up to 2 standard drinks per day and not more than 14 drinks per week

Women are advised to drink less alcohol each day and overall than men. Women have a lower body water content and proportionately more body fat than men. More water in the body means that alcohol then becomes diluted more easily, and this makes it less impactful on your overall health.

The Trouble With Alcohol

Are you aware that you or a loved one is drinking more than the standard amount of alcohol on a regular basis? This may be cause for concern.

It’s true that drinking is one of the most difficult habits to monitor. If an individual is doing any amount of heroin or cocaine, for example, you know that that person needs to seek professional help. These and other illicit drugs should not be used or taken in any amount, and serious attention should be paid to anyone who even dabbles in these substances.

But alcohol is different. That’s because alcohol is generally accepted as a part of daily life in most cultures. You’ll see alcohol everywhere, from TV and movies to your neighbor’s barbecue and your corporate Christmas party. It is acceptable to drink in moderation according to the health guidelines of nearly every nation in the world.

Further complicating matters, it’s difficult to see when alcohol consumption gets out of hand. For example, many dependent drinkers can hold down a job, maintain an active social life, and keep up with their favorite hobbies while indulging in four or five drinks a day. This habit may be contributing to significant long-term harm, but an individual often won’t realize the damage because they don’t immediately see any negative impact on their quality of life.

Know the Signs of Drinking Too Much

The following is a list of the signs and symptoms associated with alcohol use disorder:

• Feeling frequent strong urges to drink or strong cravings for alcohol
• Wanting to limit the amount that you drink and making attempts to do so that end up being unsuccessful
• Making excuses to drink
• Drinking early in the day
• Drinking to curb withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking, irritability, and sluggishness
• Being unable to curtail the amounts of alcohol you consume regularly
• Continuing to drink when you know that your drinking is causing negative ramifications for your health and life
• Drinking and driving
• Developing a tolerance for alcohol
• Running into trouble at school or work or with the law because of your alcohol use

What If You Are Drinking Too Much?

Naturally, you should avoid drinking to excess at all. Research from Cambridge University and other reputable sources states that even a few binge-drinking episodes can lead to health damage.

But alcohol does more than negatively affect your health and body. Excessive drinking can also have negative ramifications on other parts of your life. For example, you may end up getting into trouble with the law if you drink and drive, or you may act belligerently in a public space. This behavior can affect your ability to work or go to school, and the constant need for alcohol may end up draining your bank accounts too.

Furthermore, your friends and family may distance themselves from you if they find that you drink to excess on a regular basis. After all, those who struggle with alcohol use may end up shirking their responsibilities, acting in odd ways because of their disease, and being unable to provide their natural inclination of love and support to their family and friends.

Over time, these negative effects will only become worse, which is why it is essential to get help for any issue with alcohol use as soon as possible.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, do not attempt recovery alone. Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol use disorder can be extremely difficult to get through without professional help. Instead, speak to a doctor, a medical specialist, or an accredited rehabilitation center to learn about professional help.

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