The Physical Toll of Alcohol and Drugs

This article was written and published by The Fix


You don’t have to be addicted to have an increased risk for disease associated with alcohol or drug use.

Addiction can have a massive impact on your relationships, emotional health and mental well-being. That can make it easy to forget that using drugs or alcohol — even recreationally — can raise your risk for some physical illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Considering the physical impacts of substance use can be scary, but there’s good news: getting sober or reevaluating your relationship with drugs or alcohol can help you reclaim control over your health.

Here’s what you should consider about the physical impact of drugs and alcohol, and how they fit within the larger social, environmental and personal framework that impacts our health.

What drug and alcohol do to the body

The exact physical effects of addiction will depend on your drug of choice. Most people know that drinking alcohol excessively can take a toll on your liver, while using meth can deteriorate your oral hygiene and the appearance of your teeth. Living with active addiction can impact your sleep patterns and nutrition, leaving you looking haggard or generally unwell.

There are also links between drug and alcohol use and serious illness. It’s important to recognize that you don’t have to be addicted to experience these effects. Even recreational use can raise your risk for disease. For example, people who have one drink per day are at increased risk for cancer compared with people who don’t drink. It’s estimated that about 20,000 people in the United States die each year from cancers that are alcohol related.

Recreational alcohol use can also have an impact on your heart, which is especially concerning considering that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for adults in the U.S. and Canada. This trend holds true among young people, who are generally at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. According to a 2021 study, young people who use cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol increased their risk of premature heart disease by up to three times. People who use four or more different substances recreationally had a nine-times higher risk of heart disease than their peers who didn’t use drugs or alcohol recreationally.

Physical illness, addiction and trauma

Research shows a clear correlation between substance use and chronic illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease. But the story of causation is trickier to pinpoint. People who are at higher risk for substance use might also be at higher risk for certain diseases.

Consider the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These are potentially traumatic events in childhood, ranging from abuse to having a parent with mental illness to having an incarcerated parent. These events can create toxic stress, which changes how the brain and body function. Because of that, people who experience a significant amount of ACEs are more likely to experience mental illness, addiction, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

People who drink heavily or use illicit drugs might wonder if those decisions impacted their cancer diagnosis or heart health. The truth is that a complex variety of biological processes, behavioral choices and environmental factors influence our health over the lifetime.

Sobriety and physical wellness

It’s never too late to take charge of your overall health. The first step is getting treatment for substance use disorder and evaluating the past traumas that might be impacting how you interact with drugs or alcohol. Counseling can help you understand the ways in which your past is still affecting your current behaviors and future health.

When you stop using drugs and alcohol, you might notice some immediate changes to your physical health. You may begin sleeping better or notice a change to your weight. Your immune system, which can be depressed by alcohol, will likely rebound, offering you more protection against everything from a cold to COVID. In addition, paying more attention to your health can help you notice concerning symptoms and connect with care early on, preventing more serious outcomes.

Over time, the health implications of drinking less and not using drugs add up. People who drink less alcohol and don’t use recreational drugs are less likely to develop heart disease or cancer than those who indulge heavily. It’s too late to change the past, but you can take control of your future health today by exploring sobriety.

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