Despite the known health consequences that alcohol can have on the body, it remains a highly popular and consumed beverage around the world associated with social events and gatherings.
Now we know alcohol isn't a health food, but many of us may not be aware of the negative health effects that can come with alcohol consumption.
Before we go any further, this isn't to say everyone must give up alcohol, but it is important to be aware of how it makes you feel and how it might be influencing your health.
Of course heavy and chronic drinking is known to be associated with worsened health outcomes, but what about drinking in moderation?
What does drinking in moderation look like?
According to dietary guidelines, moderate consumption of alcohol is said to be no more than 3 drinks a day for men, and no more than 2 drinks a day for women (1).
Your genes will also influence how quickly and efficiently you are able to metabolize alcohol. However even if you are one of the lucky ones to be able to drink more alcohol without the dreaded hangover effects, there are still physiological consequences implicated.
Though many will argue that alcoholic drinks such as red wine do have their nutritional benefits due to their antioxidant content, there are many additional and healthier ways to get your antioxidant supply through the diet.
If you do decide to consume alcohol there are ways to help your body in processing it and ensuring your nutrition is supported and not compromised by alcoholic consumption.
The effects of alcohol on the body
Alcohol doesn't provide much in nutritional benefits but rather it can rob us of existing nutrient stores in the body. Alcohol impairs the absorption of nutrients by damaging the intestinal lining and inhibiting proper digestive secretions, but also by promoting the excretion of nutrients in the body (2)(3).
This is especially a problem with chronic heavy drinking which can result in nutrient deficiencies over time such as the B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, potassium, iron, and calcium (4).
As mentioned, nutrient absorption may be impaired with alcohol consumption due to various factors including damage to the digestive organs such as the GI tract and liver. This can compromise our ability to absorb nutrients but also cause more stress on the eliminatory and detoxification organs.
Alcohol has also been shown to raise inflammation in the digestive tract, promote pathogenic proliferation, increase oxidative stress, and promote hypermeability of the intestinal barrier (5).
In addition, many alcoholic beverages are loaded with sugar which only adds fuel to the fire by feeding bad bacteria and damaging organ systems.
Everyone knows that alcohol impacts the liver, but how so?
When we process alcohol, over 90% of it must be metabolized by the liver, halting its other jobs. Though any amount of alcohol can cause damage to the liver, chronic and heavy use is of particular concern.
With increased alcohol consumption, liver cells can become damaged and fat can build up over time increasing the risk of developing fatty liver disease, what is known as the most common alcohol-induced liver problem and the earliest stage of alcoholic liver disease.
This process also forces the liver to use up its nutrient stores which can result in low nutritional status. The liver is a vital organ for health and a poor functioning and toxic liver is a risk factor for many disease states of the body.
Many people report using alcohol as a means to feel more relaxed and even happy, but this is typically only short-lived and can worsen feelings of apathy and depression over time (6)(7).
There are significant connections between alcohol use and depressive symptoms. Alcoholism and depression often may feed into each other and can make each other worse.
When drinking it is quite obvious to tell that alcohol affects the brain, interfering with speech, social skills, and coordination.
What's more, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and may affect the way the brain looks and works (8)(9).
Heavier consumption has been associated with shrinkage of the brain in addition to learning difficulties and impaired memory (10)(11)(12).
The effects of alcohol on the brain are again largely dependent on the quantity and frequency of consumption.
Heavier amounts of alcohol consumption have been shown to be associated with cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, and cardiomyopathy (13).
Consuming over 2 drinks per day may increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms, weakening and damage of the heart, and blood pressure elevations (14).
On the other hand, though alcohol consumption isn't necessarily recommended, low to moderate consumption has interestingly been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular complications (15)(16).
The liver is a key organ when it comes to blood sugar balance however when alcohol is consumed this process is compromised as the liver focuses on processing the alcohol instead.
Alcohol is known to cause disruptions in blood sugar, making it quickly rise when consumed but then drop low afterwards. Alcohol impairs your liver's ability to effectively control blood sugar and insulin levels.
This is especially problematic in patients with diabetes as it can contribute to hypoglycaemic episodes, causing blood sugar to drop dangerously low (17).
Though many people report using alcohol to help them fall asleep due to its sedating effects, it actually impairs sleep quality and disrupts the sleep cycle which can leave you even more sleep deprived.
This is because alcohol reduces REM sleep, our most restorative time of sleep and can cause disruptions in blood sugar which can cause interruptions in deep sleep and a reduction in sleep duration (18).
Alcohol is known as an immune-suppressant as it can impair the body's defense mechanisms and ability to fight off infections (19).
Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body much more susceptible to falling ill to disease and infections.
We also know of alcohol's inflammatory effects in the gut and its ability to promote a state of dysbiosis. Don't forget, 70% of our immune system resides in the gut which makes it an essential part of a healthy immune system response.
Due to the influence that alcohol has on overall blood sugar and insulin control, intestinal and liver health, nutritional status, and the nervous system it may come as no surprise that alcohol is simply not a friend to your hormones!
Alcohol can promote a state of excess estrogen in the body causing imbalances among other hormones such as progesterone, which will typically be low as a result (20).
Alcohol has also been shown to impact HPA-axis activity, increasing cortisol and adrenaline levels and promoting the dysregulation of hormones (21). This can then lead to unwanted side effects such as insomnia, cravings, fatigue, dysregulated appetite, weight gain, and menstrual and reproductive issues.
Breast cancer risk
For women, even moderate drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer.
A study showed the relative risk of breast cancer increases by about 7% for each alcohol drink consumed per day in regular drinkers (22)
Increasing to 2-3 alcoholic drinks per day had a 20 percent higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who didn’t drink alcohol at all (23).
These results suggest that about 4% of breast cancer in developed countries may be attributable to alcohol (24).
Alcohol Best Practices
If you do decide to drink there are ways you can support your health while also enjoying yourself.
Of course this goes without saying, if you do choose to drink be careful with how much you consume.
It is recommended to stick to a maximum of 2 drinks in a day for men and 1 drink per day for women (25). Drinking above the recommendations may increase the risk for health complications.
Choose your beverage wisely
We already know that alcohol by itself does impact your blood sugar and this is especially true for mixed drinks which are typically high in sugar, creating a disastrous scenario for your blood sugar and hormones.
Your best bet is to go with lower glycemic alcohol choices such as gin, tequila, rum, and vodka mixed with low sugar options like sparkling water as well as dry wines and champagne.
Did you know that not all wines are created equal?
Conventional wines may contain many additional ingredients including preservatives, food dyes, mycotoxins, pesticides, and added sulfites, yeasts, dyes, sugar and even animal by-products (26)(27). Conventional wines also tend to be higher in alcohol.
For these reasons we recommend looking for labels stating organic, bio-dynamic, vegan, and sulfite-free whenever possible.
On the other hand, you'll do better avoiding darker alcohols, ciders, beer, and cocktails as well as juice and syrups which contain a high amount of sugars and are some of the worst offenders when it comes to blood sugar control.
Never drink on an empty stomach
Drinking alcohol without enough food will cause the alcohol to be metabolized very quickly and throw your blood sugar off course.
Be sure to have some healthy fats and protein while you are drinking and preferably a balanced meal. This will help to stabilize your blood sugar better and reduce the risk of cravings for junk food and overeating later on.
Drink more water
Since alcohol is a diuretic, hence the repeated trips to the bathroom, it can be dehydrating. Aim for atleast 1 glass of water between alcoholic beverages and keep rehydrating post drinking to help your liver flush out toxins and avoid that dreaded hangover feeling. Natural electrolytes which can be found in coconut water and maple water can help you rehydrate more quickly.
Sometimes supplements do come in handy, especially if you've accidentally gone over your daily limit of alcohol. Nutrients that are commonly depleted from alcohol consumption include vitamin C, the B vitamins, and magnesium.
These nutrients in particular are important in the recovery of dehydration, while supporting the adrenal glands and liver detoxification.
Additional herbs such as milk thistle and dandelion may also be consumed to help the liver in processing alcohol and give it some much needed TLC.
About the Author
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.