Social drinking is a widely accepted practice in our culture. Many events, celebrations, and gatherings with friends, family, or coworkers are often centered around alcohol. While I am not here to lecture you on your drinking habits, my aim is to highlight the effects of alcohol on the body, so you can make an informed decision for yourself and your own health.
Updated Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption
Do you consider yourself a drinker? Perhaps you enjoy an evening glass of wine with dinner or a beer or two on the weekends. Maybe you only drink on special occasions, or in social situations. Whatever your consumption level is, it is important to be aware of all risks and adverse health effects, so that you may make an informed decision based on your own health history. After all, knowledge is power!
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) has just released its new guidelines which suggest consuming no more than 2 alcoholic beverages per week.(1) This is a marked difference from the previous guideline, which deemed 10 drinks per week for women, and 15 drinks for men in the safe, or low-risk category. Why the sudden change?
Alcohol Use and Risk to Health
Most of us associate alcohol use with being taxing or damaging to the liver. While this is certainly true, research continues to emerge that even low to moderate alcohol consumption directly correlates to an increased risk of heart disease, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and more. These risks increase with each additional drink consumed.
Alcohol is derived from ethanol, which is metabolized by the body into acetaldehyde, a poison that can indeed wreak havoc not only on the liver, but on our cellular, gut, and brain health as well. Alcohol impacts blood sugar levels, impairs calcium metabolism and bone structure leading to porous and weakened bone tissue, affects hunger cues and digestion, as well as impairing reproductive function.
When alcohol is first ingested, a small amount is absorbed by the lining of the mouth and esophagus. Once in the stomach, it quickly enters the bloodstream via the lining of the stomach and small intestine. Once alcohol is in your bloodstream, it is carried to all organs of the body. As alcohol is a toxin, our bodies work quickly to try and neutralize it. Only ten percent of alcohol is eliminated through breath, sweat, and urine. The liver is responsible for metabolizing and eliminating the remainder. The effects of alcohol vary from person to person based on sex, body composition, the presence of food in the stomach, and the ability of the liver to produce alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes. If you tend to get flushed or red in the face after alcohol consumption, this is a good indicator that you have low alcohol dehydrogenase, resulting in a buildup of toxic effects that your body is not able to metabolize effectively.
Alcohol and Gut Health
As alcohol is absorbed through the lining of the small intestine, it negatively affects our gut microbiome by wiping out beneficial bacteria, feeding the ‘bad’ bacteria, and leading to imbalance, or dysbiosis in our microflora. This imbalance leads to inflammation, which can weaken the intestinal lining, resulting in intestinal permeability, or ‘leaky gut’. A leaky gut allows foreign bacteria and endotoxins to enter the bloodstream. This triggers our inflammatory response to produce cytokines, which can harm our cells and organs, most notably the brain and liver. If you are a daily drinker, it will be pretty difficult for your microbiome to ever rebound and have the chance for the beneficial bacteria to flourish. A book I would highly recommend reading on Gut Health is Super Gut: Reprogram Your Microbiome to Restore Health, Lose Weight, and Turn Back the Clockt by William Davis you can find it HERE.
Alcohol and Blood Sugar
Drinking alcohol can affect blood glucose levels by interfering with hormones responsible for blood sugar regulation. Excessive alcohol consumption can decrease the effectiveness of insulin, which can lead to high blood sugar levels over time. Occasional drinkers can experience negative effects on blood glucose levels as well. While the liver is involved in maintaining blood sugar levels by releasing glucose into the bloodstream, when alcohol is consumed, the liver now works hard to break the alcohol down. This inhibits its ability to release glucose, and low blood sugar or hypoglycemia is the result. I wrote about Blood Sugar and its impact on your health HERE if you are interested in learning more.
Alcohol and Sleep
While it may seem that a nightcap or drink in the evening helps you fall asleep more easily, alcohol actually disrupts sleep more than you may think. When you first go to sleep and alcohol is still in the bloodstream, you may sleep deeply and dreamlessly. This is due to the effect alcohol has on the brain, specifically on GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) a neurotransmitter that inhibits impulses between nerve cells and has a calming effect. As the night progresses, and alcohol levels drop, an eventual blood sugar crash can cause you to wake up. Alcohol may also disrupt the release of melatonin in the brain, resulting in fragmented and restless sleep. Consuming alcohol before bed suppresses REM sleep, the deep restorative sleep that we need to feel well-rested the next day.
Alcohol and Increased Cancer Risk
Research has shown that moderate to heavy drinkers are at increased risk of certain cancers, and those risks increase with each additional drink consumed.(2) As acetaldehyde is damaging to DNA, this prevents cells from repairing damage from exposure to this carcinogen. Consuming alcohol suppresses molecules that inhibit tumour growth, and can actually accelerate tumour progression. Basically, the more you drink, the higher your risk factor is. Alcohol use is associated with cancers of the colon, pancreas, esophagus, liver, and stomach. Alcohol increases the amount of circulating estrogen in the body, and excess estrogen has been linked to a higher incidence of certain types of breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer rises among women who drink regularly. For every 10 grams of alcohol that is consumed per day, there is a 4-13% increase in the risk of cancer of the breast.(3) While incidences of cancer are higher in drinkers than in non-drinkers, it does not mean that if you drink, you will certainly get cancer.
Alcohol and Brain Health
Alcohol in all its forms is a neurotoxin, plain and simple. Ethanol crosses the blood-brain barrier and damages the neurons involved in cognition, decision-making, memory formation, and social behaviour. Moderate to heavy drinking changes the physical structure of the brain and actually shrinks brain volume—specifically the hippocampus, the region of the brain in charge of memory and learning. Heavy drinkers also tend to have reduced blood flow to the brain. These factors have been shown to be early indicators of increased Alzheimer’s risk.(4) Alcohol is a known depressant, affecting the way the brain communicates with the central nervous system. While initially, you may feel an improvement in mood—feeling happy, or giddy even, this is due to a surge of dopamine in the brain. When alcohol is habitually consumed, and tolerance is increased, these ‘feel good’ hits of serotonin and dopamine become harder to register by the brain. This can lead to behavioural changes and a desire to consume more and more alcohol in one sitting to try and activate these molecules once again.
Alcohol and Hormonal Health
Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers that control and coordinate the function of tissues and organs. When the endocrine system is working properly, precise amounts of hormones are released at exactly the right time and the organs and tissues of the body respond accordingly to these messages. Consuming alcohol can impair the function of the glands that produce and release hormones, and cause various issues in the body. Regular ingestion of alcohol raises estrogen levels in both males and females through a process called aromatization. Aromatization is a biochemical process where the adrenal enzyme aromatase accelerates the conversion of testosterone to estradiol; a primary pathway for the synthesis of estrogen. Individuals who drink routinely, even in small amounts (as little as 1 drink/night) may also experience an increase in cortisol release from the adrenal glands–even when not drinking. These individuals often experience increased feelings of stress and higher anxiety in their daily lives due to elevated levels of stress hormones.
Health Benefits of Alcohol Use
But wait, aren’t there benefits to a daily glass of red wine? Resveratrol has been touted as a benefit of red wine consumption, however, the amount of wine you would need to ingest to reap the benefits of resveratrol would be astronomical. While there have been several studies weighing the possible benefits of light alcohol consumption, to date, no long-term randomized trials on alcohol use have been completed. Many of these studies are inconclusive based on the health status of study subjects. Much as the rest of our health is highly personal, how alcohol may or may not benefit health varies from person to person. With so many different lifestyles, diets, fitness and predispositions at play, the jury is still out for me.
Occasional Alcohol Use
Now, this isn’t to say you must become a teetotaler and eschew alcohol altogether. A special occasion or social event will always pop up in life. The choice is ultimately yours to make. If you do opt to imbibe from time to time, here are a few suggestions to do so in the healthiest way possible.
- Opt for Organic—Like the food we eat, the products we use, and the air we breathe, we always want to be choosing the best possible options. Many brands of beer and wine contain measurable amounts of pesticide residue, including glyphosate. By choosing organic beer, wine and spirits, you further lessen the toxic load your liver has to eliminate.
- Choose Low Sugar—Sugar content varies widely between different alcoholic beverages. Choosing lower-sugar alcoholic beverages will help keep blood sugar more stable. Steer clear of sugary mixes, ciders, blender drinks, and sweet spirits. While beer doesn’t contain added sugar, the carbohydrates in beer can raise blood sugar levels. Opt for dry wines, gin, vodka, or whisky instead.
- Sulfite Sensitive—While most sulphites found in wines are naturally occurring from the fermentation process, some bottles will have sulphites added to preserve freshness, and protect from oxidation, and unwanted bacteria. Some individuals are sensitive to these sulphites, experiencing headaches, itchy throat, flushing, or even triggering an asthma attack. There are even cool gadgets on the market now that will filter sulphites from beverages.
- Hydrate—Alcohol dehydrates the body. The tissue surrounding your brain is made up of water. As you drink, these tissues shrink, which leads to pressure around the head which can cause headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. Always have a glass or two of water with each alcoholic beverage.
- Berberine for Blood Sugar Support—Berberine is a compound found in many plants and it has amazing benefits for the body. It is used to balance blood sugar, by improving the activity and proliferation of insulin beta cells. As many alcoholic beverages have a high sugar content, consider supplementing with berberine if you plan to imbibe. Berberine has also been shown to be a hepatoprotective supplement, protecting the liver from alcohol-related oxidative stress.
- Glutathione for Detoxification—Your body breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic, highly reactive compound. Liver enzymes and antioxidants in the body work hard to detoxify and eliminate it but often cannot keep up. We are bombarded with a dizzying array of toxins in our air, water, food, and environment on a daily basis. Throw alcohol in the mix and our liver is working overtime to try and reduce our toxic load. One way to help ease the burden of the liver is to increase glutathione—the most abundant and ‘master’ antioxidant in the body. Supplementing with glutathione both before and after consuming alcohol can help ensure you have enough circulating to protect your brain and support detoxification.
- NAC and Vitamin C—Another way to increase glutathione in the body is by taking n-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) and Vitamin C together. NAC is the precursor to glutathione and has been shown to replenish glutathione levels in tissues, helping to fend off the oxidative effects of alcohol consumption. Supplementing with Vitamin C, which is depleted with alcohol consumption, has been shown to soak up acetaldehyde. By taking NAC and Vitamin C together, both before and after having a drink, you can help your body and mitigate the effects.
While alcohol is certainly not a health-promoting beverage, it can be included as an occasional indulgence in an otherwise healthy individual. (If you or someone you know may be suffering from alcohol dependency or addiction, I urge you to reach out to your local Alcoholics Anonymous or addictions counselling services.)
- Yoo JE, Han K, Shin DW, Kim D, Kim BS, Chun S, Jeon KH, Jung W, Park J, Park JH, Choi KS, Kim JS. Association Between Changes in Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk. JAMA Netw Open. 2022 Aug 1;5(8):e2228544. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.28544. PMID: 36001313; PMCID: PMC9403779.
- Liu, Y., Nguyen, N., & Colditz, G. A. (2015). Links between alcohol consumption and breast cancer: a look at the evidence. Women’s Health (London, England), 11(1), 65-77. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299758
- Heymann D, Stern Y, Cosentino S, Tatarina-Nulman O, Dorrejo JN, Gu Y. The Association Between Alcohol Use and the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2016;13(12):1356-1362. doi: 10.2174/1567205013666160603005035. PMID: 27628432; PMCID: PMC5526221.