How Reducing Alcohol Could Add to Your Health
I recently did a deep dive into alcohol at the request of D Magazine (see my quote!), and let me tell you alcohol is a touchy topic in the health and wellness world. I’ll start by saying I love a good glass of wine or a celebratory cocktail. But the more I study about alcohol’s toxic affect on the body, the more I tend to be selective with how much and what I choose to drink, knowing that if I want to feel consistently good, alcohol is doing me few favors. If you’re someone who regularly drinks, let’s dive into the why behind how reducing your alcohol can add to your health – in spades:
It’s kind of crazy when you start to understand what all alcohol does to the body. For the sake of this discussion, I will steer away from focusing too much on the long-term, “doomsday” perspective that alcohol can increase your risk for cancers, liver cirrhosis, alzheimer’s, etc. and focus on how it affects your wellness today.
If we’re honest, most of us make decisions based on the near-term. It’s human nature. So speaking in these terms, I’d say that most people could agree that they want some combination of these things: energy, mental clarity, good mood, quality sleep, less anxiety, a body weight that feels healthy to them, and freedom from gut issues.
McKinsey put out research that estimates the health and wellness industry at $450 billion in the US with projections to continue growing rapidly, but with a consensus that there are many needs still not being met. I think people are shelling out money to add complex therapies and services into their life instead of looking at the things they can actually give up or at least reduce to improve quality of life.
Alcohol is a big one that can hinder all of the previously stated health goals, because there’s not really a body system that it doesn’t negatively affect. Trends are showing that the alcohol-free beverage category is increasing at a significant rate, about a third of Americans said they aim to drink less alcohol this year, and Gen-Z seems to be less interested in drinking than previous generations. Average consumption is currently around 4-6 drinks weekly per person for those who drink, which isn’t crazy, but we know there is a segment of the population who are drinking daily, or binge drink on weekends, generally going far over the 4 weekly drinks. I would say that if you choose to drink, sticking to 2-4 drinks per week would be a more reasonable amount to minimize health effects, and stick to organic, sulfate free wines, 100 percent agave tequila, and drinks without added colors, sugars, chemicals and grains.
Alcohol not only damages the gut by causing inflammation, but it changes the entire microbiome. It reduces beneficial bacteria, increases the harmful bacteria that produce additional toxins in the body called lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and increases gut permeability aka “leaky gut.” These toxins also create a burden on the liver, which we’ll talk about next.
In addition to alcohol being a toxin that the liver has to process, the inflammatory molecules from the gut that spill over into the liver can get released into circulation and cause damage to the brain. This is known as the gut-liver-brain axis. Alcohol can also cause fat accumulation in the liver, “slowing down” its functioning. The liver is responsible for over 500 different functions – vital for digestion as well as detoxification of the constant streams of toxins coming in from our world, immunity, blood sugar, vitamin storage, thyroid function, and an insane amount of other responsibilities. If you want to be healthy, you have to prioritize a healthy liver.
Additionally, we now know a great deal about how the gut and brain are connected, and given these unfavorable changes in the gut microbiome, it makes sense that we see mental health changes as a result. One of my favorite facts is that nearly 95% of your serotonin is produced in the gut – I would say it’s a pretty good thing to take care of. Alcohol has also been shown to reduce other neurotransmitter levels, like GABA, which is known for its “calming” effect among others and can lead to increased feelings of anxiety. So we drink, we feel more anxious, and then we drink more to cope with the anxiety. It’s a cycle.
While many people feel that alcohol relaxes them and helps them sleep, it actually keeps you from getting deep, restorative rest. This has its own effect on the gut, hormones, and stress, and you’ve started the cycle over. Lack of sleep has been shown to throw hunger hormones out of whack – increasing hunger hormone, grehlin, and decreasing your fullness hormone, leptin. Whether or not you were drinking the night before, if you’ve ever not slept enough and felt like a bottomless pit the next day, there’s a reason for that.
In addition to throwing hunger hormones out of whack, chronic alcohol consumption can reduce testosterone, progesterone, and other reproductive hormones while increasing estrogen unfavorably. This can lead to fertility issues and cycle irregularities. Alcohol can also increase cortisol (your stress hormone) over time, which can affect weight gain, energy levels, stress, inflammation, etc.
Good gut health and balanced hormones are crucial for healthy skin, and alcohol can disrupt both.
Drinking can cause blood sugar imbalance, make you feel hungrier and in the long run lead to insulin resistance as a result of increasing liver fat, which are all contributors to worse metabolic health, weight gain, and diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Plus, when you’re drinking, your body diverts away from digesting food and focuses on metabolizing alcohol, so there’s a greater chance the food coming in is stored as fat. Alcohol also impairs nutrient absorption, like some B vitamins responsible for energy and detox, and fat-soluble vitamins A,D,E,K.
If you’re looking to go alcohol-free or at least reduce, let’s talk about alternatives. Sometimes mocktails are glorified fruit juice, so it’s important to be conscious of sugar content which is also hard on the liver. I opt for ingredients like sparkling water, fresh herbs, lots of citrus juice, maybe some muddled fresh fruit, and ingredients that add health benefits like fresh ginger or bitters. Maybe even some adaptogens from high quality sources to give you the stress relieving factor. There are also some interesting brands out there that I like – Hoptea is a favorite, it’s just herbal tea brewed like beer and it’s the craziest thing. And other sparkling teas. I’ve heard awful things about nonalcoholic wine but I can’t say I’ve tried it. If you’re a Dallas local, check out the brands and stores mentioned in this article.
As I said, I personally enjoy a drink but just try to be selective when I choose to drink. I like to center it around occasions and experiences and do so moderately. I tell my clients that it’s more about the overall toxin load – how can you reduce yours in the most significant way while knowing toxins aren’t completely avoidable? It usually starts with what you’re doing most often.
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