What You're Really Doing To Your Body If You Drink Scotch Every Night

America may be the home of Kentucky bourbon, but Americans still can't get enough of scotch. In fact, the United States is the biggest market for Scottish-born whisky the world over. And despite a rocky 2020 that blighted sales due to new export tariffs from the UK and EU to the U.S., Scotch is still worth over £729 million — roughly a billion U.S. dollars — as of 2021 (via The Drinks Business).

And with its unique, smokey taste, perfect for cocktails or straight, it's little wonder it's a hit. For many, scotch is a classic nightcap to see off the end of a hard day — but what is that nightly scotch doing to your body? Well, the answer will vary somewhat from person to person. "Alcohol affects everybody a little differently depending on gender, size and their previous exposure to alcohol, and somewhat genetics," Northwestern Memorial Hospital's internal medicine and emergency physician Dr. David Zich told the Chicago Tribune. With that in mind, we've compiled some of the ways that evening scotch could be impacting your body — many of which you've likely never considered.

No, scotch is not a cure-all

Long before scotch became the reserve of expensive bottles and dimly lit bars, it was being used for medicinal purposes in post-Medieval Scotland. With medical practices being rudimentary and treatments limited to herbs or more superstitious means, the distillation of whisky developed and eventually gained a reputation as a cure for various ailments (via Scotch Whisky).

Initially produced in monasteries, which were hubs of the local communities and would routinely house sick patients, scotch (then known as "aqua vitae," or water of life) became a common ingredient in medicinal cocktails. Aqua vitae was used as a treatment for a huge number of conditions or illnesses — ranging from deafness to shoulder pain, for which it was rubbed into the joint as part of an ointment that included beeswax, animal fats, and herbs.

Scotch was also purported to cure a "dangerous cough," as outlined in the 1683 book "A Way To Get Wealth" (via Scotch Whisky). How? By soaking your feet in it, of course! While scotch does have some very real benefits (as we'll discuss), it's not exactly the answer to all that ails you. And, well, you should certainly avoid sticking your toes in a hot toddy. Ouch.

Drinking scotch every night could harm your stomach lining

Scotch is sometimes used as a digestif, a drink consumed at the end of a meal that is said to aid digestion (via The Spruce Eats). While this is a common practice for many people, scientifically speaking it may not actually be the best move for your stomach's health, particularly in the long term. There's a direct link between stomach acid production and alcohol, and consumption of alcohol can cause increased production of acid, which can lead to discomfort and can contribute to acid reflux, according to Medical News Today.

Continued alcohol use over time can contribute to even worse problems. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining, also known as gastritis, says American Addiction Centers. As a symptom, this may present as just an innocuous stomachache, but over time it can lead to some serious complications, from ulcers to an increased risk of stomach cancer. While these more profound illnesses are generally associated with alcohol abuse, it's important to keep an eye on how your stomach's reacting to your nightly scotch.

You could get a good dose of antioxidants

In that amber-colored liquid, goodness lies. Scotch is not only a great unwinder, but it's also an excellent source of antioxidants — even more so, according to some studies, than red wine, which is famed for its antioxidant levels. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the effects of drinking whisky, red wine, and a "new make" (unmatured) spirit on phenol content and the capacity of plasma for antioxidants. It was found that antioxidants in the blood were highest after drinking whisky, closely followed by red wine.

This is largely due to one main substance in spirit: ellagic acid. Ellagic acid is a micronutrient (also known as a polyphenol) that has powerful antioxidant properties, according to Healthline. Alongside other effects, ellagic acid (alongside the other polyphenols present in whisky) could affect the free radicals in your body, reducing the efficacy of cancer cells and helping to prevent disease, as well as helping to reduce levels of "bad" cholesterol (LDL) in the blood, says WebMD.

Drinking scotch in lower quantities could lower your risk of heart disease

Among the more notable effects of drinking scotch every night could be on your heart health when drinking it in smaller quantities. More specifically, a small intake of whisky (or other alcohol drinks) over a week could reduce your risk of heart failure, according to a 2015 study published in the European Heart Journal.

The study looked at over 14,500 participants and examined the association between the number of drinks consumed per week and the risk of heart failure. It was found that men who drank up to seven alcoholic drinks a week during early-middle age had an even lower risk of heart failure than men who reported abstaining from alcohol. This effect was similar, although less notable, in women. With more copious consumption of alcohol, however, there was no discernible difference between abstainers when it came to heart failure risk. And obviously, it should also be pointed out that alcohol in heavy quantities can lead to serious heart concerns, such as the development of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, says the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

You can expect a worse hangover if you choose scotch over some other alcoholic drinks

Ever woken up with a sore head after having too much scotch? If you have, you might want to consider switching drinks, as scotch (as well as other dark liquors) can cause your hangover to be worse than lighter-colored drinks. This is due to the higher level of congeners, chemicals left over from the fermentation process that give certain drinks, like scotch, their flavor and color, according to Food & Wine. These congeners can break down into toxins, which can result in you feeling a little more fragile the morning after.

In addition, "there are various components in alcoholic beverages that contribute to [a] hangover," such as sulfites or additives, John P. Cullen, research associate professor for the University of Rochester Medical Center, New York, told the publication. When you consume them, "your body could react to some of these organic compounds with a mild allergic reaction, or inflammation, which could increase your hangover the next day," he continued. Scotch can have more of these components, again due to its color and complex taste.

Drinking scotch every night could lower your risk of dementia

While the long-term effects of excessive alcohol intake can be profound, the long-term effects of drinking in lower quantities could prove to be beneficial. This may be the case with dementia risk, which could be reduced by light daily consumption of scotch. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined the potential relationship between alcohol intake and dementia risk and found that adults who consumed one to six drinks weekly demonstrated a lower risk of dementia than those who abstained from alcohol.

This association was also observed in another study, a follow-up of an earlier one, published by The BMJ. In both instances, though, it's very important to point out that excessive alcohol intake increased the risk of dementia. What's more, heavy alcohol consumption in the long term can damage brain function in several different ways and can contribute to depression or poor mental health, as Medical News Today observes. 

Drinking scotch before bed may disrupt your sleep

Alcohol, including a nightcap of scotch, is known for helping us nod off. But does it actually help us sleep better? According to the medical director of The London Sleep Centre in the United Kingdom, Irshaad Ebrahim, it's not quite that simple. "The immediate and short-term impact of alcohol is to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and this effect on the first half of sleep may be partly the reason some people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid," Ebrahim told WebMD. "However, this is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night."

That second half of the night consists of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which restores us and makes us feel fresh in the morning. When this is disrupted, our sleep quality is worsened, and we feel more tired. And remember: Alcohol can affect our sleep in more ways than just how alert we feel. "Alcohol also suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea," said Ebrahim, which can lead to more profound issues. Although Ebrahim advises that one or two regular drinks may not have that much of an effect on sleep, any more can cause problems.

Scotch can get in the way of weight loss

A nightly scotch can disrupt body fat loss in several different ways. The first is due to its caloric content, which contains very little nutritional value, according to Healthline. This means you're adding more intake to your diet without reaping many benefits. While a shot of single malt scotch comes in at just 55 calories (per My Fitness Pal), lower than many other alcoholic beverages, this can add up over time.

What's more, alcohol intake affects your body's fuel processes, meaning that when you drink it, it's bumped to the top of the queue as fuel for your body. Any carbs or fats you consume, in that case, take more time to burn off and can thus end up being stored as fat. Add to that the inhibited impulse control that alcohol can cause around food, and you can see how a nightcap could diminish any weight loss goals.

Drinking scotch every night may reduce your sex drive, but what about your fertility?

The human sex drive is affected by a number of factors, and despite the assumption that alcohol acts as an aphrodisiac, drinking scotch nightly could have more of a negative effect than you think (via Healthline). "Sexual response is reduced by regular and prolonged drinking," alcohol expert and clinical psychologist Dr. Abigael San told Drinkaware. According to San, sexual sensitivity can be reduced by alcohol over long periods of time, and drinking too much temporarily can cause impotence.

When it comes to conception, however, scotch could have less of an effect on women, particularly when consumed in lower quantities. A study published in The BMJ with over 6,000 participants found that "consumption of less than 14 servings of alcohol per week seemed to have no discernible effect on fertility," according to the study's authors. Heavier alcohol intake, however, can lead to fertility issues for men, as excess alcohol can reduce testosterone levels and sperm production and alter the health of sperm, states Healthline.

If you have a cold, a hot toddy could provide some relief

If you're ever had a friend recommend a hot toddy if you're feeling a bit congested, they were on to something. The mixture of scotch, hot water, honey, and lemon can be comforting when you're under the weather. And it turns out, they kind of work. "While a hot toddy can't necessarily cure a cold or stop it in its tracks, the warm beverage's ingredients are known to alleviate cold symptoms," Dr. David Greuner, surgeon and member of NYC Surgical Associates, told Fatherly. Greuner explained that the alcohol in scotch has a dilating effect on mucus membranes, helping to curb cold symptoms, as well as a painkilling effect, which can ease a sore throat.

Once you add the other ingredients into the mix (sore throat-easing honey, congestion-releasing hot water, and lemon, which potentially provides severity-reducing effects from vitamin C), hot toddies can have a very real effect. However, opinions are mixed when it comes to the scotch. "We are potentially adding an extra stressor to our body," said Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a family physician, who noted that drinking alcohol during a cold can just add more negative symptoms like nausea or dehydration. When we're trying to cure a cold, she said, "we are running uphill, and it becomes steeper when alcohol is added."

Drinking scotch may cause your bowel movements to change

Have you ever felt a little irregular the day after a few drinks? People may not talk about it much, but the effect scotch has on bowel movements is definitely worth considering, particularly if you're having a glass or two nightly. Alcohol is a diuretic, and drinking alcohol stops your body from releasing a hormone called vasopressin which helps you regulate your urine frequency and the levels of water in your body (per WebMD). As you lose more water when you drink, this affects your bowels, by causing constipation and irregular bowel movements.

In addition, if you drink in heavier amounts regularly, you could face the opposite problem. In large amounts, alcohol will cause your intestines to release water, causing diarrhea. Add to that the stimulation that excess alcohol causes to your large intestine's muscles, pushing them into overactivity, and you could have an uncomfortable morning-after experience. Bear in mind that while diarrhea is typically caused by excess drinking, even moderate alcohol intake can cause constipation.

You could be putting your liver at risk by drinking scotch every night

Approximately 4.5 million Americans have chronic liver disease, according to the CDC, and alcohol use is a huge factor in the development of liver conditions. As alcohol is processed through the liver, drinking every night can cause the organ to work hard. This can cause progressive illness for the liver, starting with fatty liver disease, caused by a build-up of fat in the liver cells which can cause the organ to function less effectively, according to the Liver Foundation.

While fatty liver disease is generally reversible if you abstain from drinking, continuing to drink may cause alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver which also causes liver cell damage and destruction, and may be chronic or acute (and highly dangerous). The last stage of alcohol-related liver disease, cirrhosis, is caused by a build-up of scar tissue on the liver and can result in serious health complications. Drinking in moderate, recommended amounts (one drink or less per day for women or two drinks or less per day for men, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans) won't cause alcohol-related liver disease for most people; but watching your intake is crucial for prevention.

Drinking small amounts of scotch could help you live longer

This one will be music to the ears of scotch-lovers. Drinking a small amount of scotch nightly could lead to greater longevity, according to a large-scale study published in 2018 in the journal Circulation.

The study sought to look at the impact of lifestyle factors on life expectancy in the U.S. population, and focused on the prevalence of five low-risk lifestyle factors (never smoking, a BMI between 18.5-24.9, a "high-quality" diet score, partaking in regular physical activity, and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol) among over 120,000 American adults. It was found that adults that adhered to all five low-risk factors, including drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, had on average a considerably longer lifespan: by up to 14 years for women, and 12.2 years for men.

Notably, people's lifespans were improved less if they didn't exhibit these low-risk factors. It's worth pointing out that the study defined "moderate consumption" as 5 to 15 grams per day of alcohol for women and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. It's also worth remembering that this study includes alcohol consumption as part of a generally very healthy lifestyle, not as the cause of longevity in itself.

Drinking scotch every night can worsen your bone health over time

Drinking alcohol regularly could cause some more visible health effects — but one of the places it could be affecting you most is where you can't see it, particularly if you're drinking scotch in higher quantities every night. With approximately 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, and a further 44 million at risk of osteoporosis through having low bone density, keeping on top of our bone health is vital (via National Osteoporosis Foundation). And scotch may not help.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research is almost universal in showing the negative effects that heavy alcohol intake can have on bone health and the later risk of developing osteoporosis, particularly if drinking excessively in young adulthood. Alcohol can cause bone-growth deficiency, and generally erode the mechanical properties of bones, decreasing their health. The effects of moderate drinking on bone health are less clear, and studies have been mixed in their results on how drinking in smaller amounts affects bone health. If you're prone to drinking more than a few each night, however, it's important to think about how your skeleton's reacting to it.