While addressing the harmful effects of alcohol, its direct effect on organs and systems hogs the attention. At the same time, a critical aspect impacting overall health — the connection between alcohol abuse and bone health — is overlooked. Alcohol intake can negatively impact bone density, increase fracture risk and disrupt the mechanisms controlling bone maintenance. All these can deteriorate the quality of life and lead to several health complications.
“The effect of alcohol on bones tends to depend on the quantity consumed, person’s age and any pre-existing conditions. At the same time, alcohol consumption has been proven to have a negative effect on bone health,” highlights Dr Sushanth Mummigatti, consultant orthopedic, Manipal Hospitals, Goa.
How does alcohol affect bones negatively?
After a child is born, the bones grow and develop over the years. The growth phase, where bones expand in size and strength, lasts till around the age of 20. Following this, until the age of about 40 years, bone density is maintained depending on one’s diet and lifestyle. By the time you reach your 70s, the bone density depletes and loses 30 to 40 percent of its strength.
“This whole process is maintained mainly by two types of cells — osteoblasts (bone-forming cells) and osteoclasts (bone-resorbing cells),” explains Dr Mummigatti. “Alcohol consumption influences the activities of both the cell types by increasing the activity of the latter and decreasing the activity of the former. This negatively impacts bone remodeling, the process by which bones undergo continuous modification to maintain their quality and strength.”
Effect of excessive alcohol consumption on bones
Several risk factors affect bone health and strength. The collective impact on bones due to alcohol abuse is labeled alcohol-induced bone disease.
“Alcoholism has multimodal effects on the bones. First, the bone mineral density (BMD) is reduced. Secondly, it leads to an increased risk of fractures due to reduced BMD,” says Dr Mummigatti. BMD can be caused by bone conditions such as osteoporosis and osteopenia. The former is a condition characterized by a considerable loss in bone mineral density, which results in brittle and fragile bones. It is frequently associated with aging and hormonal changes. Osteopenia, on the other hand, is viewed as an early sign of osteoporosis. It is less severe — the bone mineral density is diminished, but not to the same extent as osteoporosis.
Bone health and alcohol: Who is vulnerable?
Even though alcohol consumption is never completely safe, certain age groups are more likely to experience severe detrimental effects on their bone, explains Dr Mummigatti.
- Adolescents: According to a research paper published in Alcohol Health & Research World, alcohol has a harmful effect on young and developing bones because it lowers peak bone mass (the most amount of bone tissue that a person can develop over their lifetime). This can result in comparatively weak and brittle adult bones, which are more prone to fractures.
- Elderly people: Older people are more prone to alcohol-induced bone conditions. Several reasons including decreasing bone density, impaired bone turnover and weakened liver function contribute to this.
- Postmenopausal women: “The level of estrogen, a hormone that aids in preserving bone health decreases once women reach postmenopausal age,” shares Dr Mummigatti. This leads to an increased rate of bone resorption, resulting in weakened bones. Drinking alcohol will only make the situation worse.
Consume alcohol but in moderation
Since drinking is a social activity for many, finding a balance in alcohol consumption helps to avoid alcohol-induced bone diseases. “The effect of alcohol depends on the amount consumed,” says Dr Mummigatti. “Even a drink or two per day does not significantly alter the bone density values. However, it should also go along with the proper nutrient intake, regular exercises and maintaining a healthy body weight.”
Dr Mummigatti advises eating leafy vegetables, milk, dairy products, nuts and several types of beans to maintain healthy calcium levels and receive adequate sun exposure to produce enough vitamin D3, as these nutrients are essential for strong bones.
- Excessive alcohol intake affects the functioning of osteoblasts and osteoclasts and negatively impacts bone remodeling.
- The bone conditions brought on by alcohol abuse are called alcohol-induced bone illnesses. This includes osteoporosis and osteopenia.
- The risk of alcohol-related bone issues is higher in adolescents, postmenopausal women and older people.
- Moderate drinking, when combined with sufficient nutritional intake, frequent exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight, can help sustain bone health.