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6 alcohol-related health risks everyone in their 20s should know about

Over half of 15 to 24 year olds regularly drink in excess of low-risk guidelines.

HERE IN IRELAND, we often think of alcohol in a positive light – relaxing with a drink after work or buying a pint as we watch a big match with friends.

One thing we don’t stop and consider so often is the negative side of regular drinking.

The truth is that the more you drink, the higher the risk to your health. Cancer risk is strongly linked to alcohol consumption, whether you drink a lot in one night or spread your drinks over a week. That’s according to Dr Ronan Glynn of the HSE’s National Cancer Control Programme.

“Many young people are not even aware they’re drinking harmfully,” he explains.

So what are the specific health risks people in their 20s should be aware of when it comes to alcohol? Here’s a snapshot…

1. Alcohol is a carcinogen, like tobacco and asbestos

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The ethanol in alcoholic drinks is a proven carcinogen, which, as Dr Glynn explains, “means there’s no doubt it’s a cause of cancer.”

Alcohol is the cause of seven types of cancer, among them throat, oesophageal, bowel and breast cancer. In relation to breast cancer alone, there are currently at least 100 published studies confirming the link to alcohol.

“Many people think cancer is something that might happen in their fifties or sixties, but if you are a regular drinker, your risk of cancer starts earlier” says Dr Glynn.

One in four people diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland are under 50, and at least one in twenty of those diagnosed with bowel cancer are under 55.

2. What you drink now can impact your risk of cancer in the longer term

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The amount of alcohol you drink in your teens and twenties doesn’t just have an immediate impact on your health, but a long term one too.

In relation to breast cancer, the facts are particularly well-proven. Women who drink around two standard drinks per day up to their early twenties are one third more likely to develop breast cancer. In fact, anything from 5g alcohol a day (less than half a small glass of Prosecco) can add to your risk of breast cancer.

In relation to other cancers, if you drink heavily on a regular basis throughout your lifetime, your risk of bowel cancer increases by almost half and you’re seven times more likely to get oesophageal cancer.

3. Alcohol can damage, shrink or kill brain cells

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Anyone who has ever been drunk or even tipsy will know the sense of loss of control it brings. This is because alcohol interferes in the way brain cells communicate with one another.

In the short term, this might result in a hangover headache, but in the longer term, drinking above low risk guidelines can change the way the brain functions and looks.

Symptoms include memory problems, poor coordination, mood changes, mental health difficulties and even learning difficulties.

4. Drinking can reduce your fertility

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It’s common to hear of men and women stopping or cutting down on alcohol when trying to conceive, but even if you don’t plan on starting a family for a long time, it’s important to know how alcohol can affect your fertility.

Drinking heavily can be the cause of a number of issues relating to reproductive health. In men, alcohol can cause a drop in testosterone, which can affect sperm production, and in women, ovulation can stop altogether.

5. Alcohol can cause depression or make it worse

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Drinking alcohol to help you wind down in times of stress or anxiety might seem like a solution in the short term, but that relaxing effect on your mood is temporary.

Alcohol is a depressant which affects your brain’s natural level of ‘happiness chemicals’ like serotonin and dopamine. This change explains why you may feel low after an evening of drinking.

Alcohol can also worsen the symptoms of existing mental health problems like depression, schizophrenia, OCD and borderline personality disorders.

6. Drinking can stop you absorbing nutrients from your food

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You may be working to eat a balanced, healthy diet, but what you may not realise is that drinking could undo all that hard work.

Alcohol can increase the amount of acid in the stomach, and so is strongly linked to problems like gastritis, ulcers, inflammation and reflux. As well as causing you discomfort and pain, alcohol-related digestive problems can impact your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from your food.

Want to cut down on the amount of alcohol you’re consuming?

If you’re keen to limit your alcohol intake, here are some tips to make it easier:

  • Alternate each alcoholic drink with a glass of water.
  • Watch out for serving sizes. Large wine glasses, for example, can hold two standard drinks or more per serving. Buy smaller glasses to make it easier to keep track.
  • Avoid rounds to stay more in control of how much you’re drinking, rather than drinking at the pace of the group.
  • Keep track of the amount of alcohol you’re consuming using the drinks calculator on

Find out more about how alcohol could be affecting you healthwise at, a new website from the HSE. You’ll find trusted advice, guidelines for lower risk drinking, a drinks calculator and plenty of other helpful resources.

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