Overview

Alcohol has wide-ranging effects in the body. There are purported benefits, as well as pitfalls, to consuming alcohol. Once it enters your system, it triggers immediate physiological changes in the brain, heart, and liver, among other organs. Over time, these changes can lead to long-term health complications if you’re drinking too much.

There’s a lot you may not know about this popular substance that’s found in some of your favorite cocktails, liquors, beers, and wines. We’ll fill you in on 30 facts and five myths about this often-celebratory substance consumed in many cultures around the world.

30 facts about alcohol

  1. The “alcohol” in alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and spirits is actually ethanol, or ethyl alcohol. It’s the only type of alcohol that you can drink without causing serious damage to your body.
  2. Alcohol is a depressant. This means that it slows down activity in the brain.
  3. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 86.4 percent of adults reported having drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime.
  4. The NSDUH also found that 70.1 percent of American adults had had a drink in the previous year, and 56.0 percent had had one in the previous month.
  5. Alcohol has a wide variety of effects. In the brain, it triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with pleasure and satisfaction.
  6. Stress relief is another side effect of drinking alcohol. This is caused by an increase in the uptake of another neurotransmitter, called GABA.
  7. Alcohol is among the most commonly misused addictive substances. About 12.7 percent of American adults meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). That’s 1 in 8 adults.
  8. According to a 2015 study, light-eyed Americans of European descent consume more alcohol than dark-eyed Americans of European descent.
  9. The same study found that blue-eyed Americans of European descent had the highest levels of alcohol misuse, suggesting a genetic link that makes them more susceptible to AUD.
  10. Alcohol is processed in the liver, where enzymes help break down ethanol into acetaldehyde and acetate.
  11. The effects associated with drinking occur when ethanol enters your bloodstream and passes through the membranes of cells in your brain, heart, and other organs.
  12. Research suggests that rates of alcohol use and high-risk use increased between 2001 and 2013.
  13. AUD has a genetic component. Researchers estimate that genes account for approximately half of the risk.
  14. Men are more likely to use alcohol than women.
  15. Alcohol has different health consequences for men and women. Long-term drinking is more likely to have negative health effects for women compared to men, even if the woman drinks less for a shorter period of time.
  16. Women who are dependent on alcohol are 50 to 100 percent more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than men who are dependent on alcohol.
  17. Alcohol-attributable deaths are the third-leading preventable cause of death in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88,424 people die from alcohol-related causes each year in the United States.
  18. Alcohol may be nearly as old as civilization. Residues from an alcoholic beverage that dates back to 7,000 to 6,600 B.C. have been found in China.
  19. Archaeologists have also found evidence suggesting that the workers who built the Great Pyramids of Giza were paid in beer.
  20. Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that involves drinking a lot in a short period of time. For women, four or more drinks in two hours is considered binge drinking. For men, it’s five or more drinks in two hours.
  21. Teens who start drinking before the age of 15 are more likely to develop alcohol dependence later on in life.
  22. Symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) include hallucinations, seizures, and, in severe cases, even death. People who are dependent on alcohol should seek medical assistance to stop drinking.
  23. Culture has a significant influence on how people consume alcohol. A study that explored family drinking in Italy found that Italians who drank at family meals while growing up were less likely to develop unhealthy drinking habits later on in life.
  24. Alcohol use is a significant risk factor for dementia.
  25. Drinking red wine in moderation is believed to be good for the heart. Red wine contains resveratrol, a substance which helps control cholesterol, prevent blood vessel damage, and stop blood clots.
  26. Binge drinking can lead to a hangover the following morning. Hangovers are caused by chemical byproducts created during alcohol processing.
  27. Hormonal changes lead to unpleasant hangover symptoms. For instance, hormonal changes cause you to urinate more, which can lead to dehydration.
  28. Dark liquors, such as red wine or whiskey, are more likely to result in severe hangovers. White or clear liquors are less likely to result in a hangover.
  29. Around the world, minimum legal drinking ages range from 10 to 21 years.
  30. Muscles absorb alcohol faster than fat. As a result, people who have more muscles and less body fat have higher alcohol tolerance.

5 myths about alcohol

1. Myth: It’s OK to get drunk every once in a while.

The truth: Binge drinking is associated with serious health problems, including unintentional injuries, cancer, and heart disease. It doesn’t matter how infrequently you do it. If you have four or more drinks (women) or five or more drinks (men) in a single sitting, you’re risking your health.

2. Myth: Drinking is always safe in moderation.

The truth: Moderate alcohol consumption may have some health benefits. However, that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. For some people, the risks might outweigh the possible benefits. These include people who:

  • are pregnant or trying to get pregnant
  • take prescription medications that interact with alcohol
  • plan to drive or operate machinery
  • have heart failure or a weak heart
  • have had a stroke
  • have liver or pancreatic disease
  • have AUD, alcohol dependence, or a family history of either

3. Myth: Wine or beer won’t make you as drunk as hard liquor.

The truth: All types of alcohol contain the same active ingredient. All standard drinks contain the same amount of alcohol. A standard drink includes:

  • 12 ounces (oz.) of beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 oz. of malt beer (7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 oz. of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol)

4. Myth: Drinking isn’t a problem as long as you can hold your liquor.

The truth: Being able to drink without feeling the effects could be a sign that you’re developing alcohol tolerance. Over time, regular alcohol use can put you at risk for AUD.

5. Myth: You can sober up quickly with a cup of coffee.

The truth: Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant which can make you feel more alert and awake. It doesn’t help your body process alcohol faster. If you’ve been drinking, giving your body time to break down the alcohol in your system is the only way to sober up.

The takeaway

Humans have a long, complicated relationship with alcohol. We often toast to special occasions, and that glass of red wine may even have health benefits. But drinking too much can have health consequences. If you’re aware of the risks, you’re generally fine to drink alcohol in moderation.