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Alcohol and your health

Written by

Sabrina Freudenmann BHSc

We all love to have a glass of wine, beer, cider or cocktail every now and then. Although, if you’re a health-conscious individual I guess you’ve wondered what type of impact drinking alcohol has to your overall health.

So how much alcohol is too much, how does alcohol affect your system and what are the healthiest alcohol drinks to enjoy? Let’s dive into these questions!

Is alcohol bad for your health?

We all know that excessive alcohol intake leads to an increased risk of liver disease, cancer, diabetes, inflammatory disease and neurological complications.

What about moderate consumption or indulging in a drink every now and again? Normally moderate drinking is classified as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Although those are the “averages” for moderate drinking – the health outcomes are always going to be unique to your ability to detox the alcohol and deal with the negative effects. That’s why in functional medicine there is no such thing as a one size fit’s all and we have to look at the individual as everyone handles alcohol differently.

A study published by the American Institute for Cancer Research showed that just one drink a day could increase a person’s risk for breast cancer. Another study even found that moderate alcohol consumption to be a contributing factor in more than 60 different chronic health conditions. Whereas another study found that low to moderate amounts of recreational alcohol can have protective effects against cardiovascular disease. So which is it?????

How does alcohol affect your gut health?

Alcohol can decrease the beneficial gut bacteria and increase bacteria which boost endotoxins (liposaccharides (LPS)) production. This can lead to a significant shift in the intestinal microbiota composition.

Alcohol induces intestinal permeability due to two factors. Firstly, alcohol causes cell death, which can lead to changes in the intestine that include mucosal ulcerations, erosions, and loss of epithelium mainly at the villi tips. Secondly reactive oxygen species (ROS) released during alcohol metabolism cause direct cellular damage via oxidative stress.

How does alcohol affect inflammation?

Alcohol and its metabolites (endotoxin LPS) trigger an inflammatory response by the immune system which causes gut inflammation. Gut inflammation can then directly lead to intestinal permeability which then causes widespread systemic inflammation in the body and brain.

What about resveratrol in red wine? We all heard that resveratrol displays anti-inflammatory properties and is often recommended to address free radicals and therefore drinking red wine is very healthy.

Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Red wine contains roughly about 2mg/l resveratrol depending on kind of grapes etc. A therapeutic dose of 200mg of resveratrol is required to have an adequate health impact. So, this means drinking around 31.7 L annual consumption of red wine is required to equal an uptake of ∼70 mg resveratrol (or 0.2 mg/d) which is less than the proposed therapeutic dose of 200mg per day. By that stage, you’re already a heavy drinker so no matter how much resveratrol you’ve managed to uptake, the negatives will outweigh them heavily.

How does alcohol affect your immune system?

Alcohol affects your intestinal mucosal immune system via several mechanisms. It may first decrease the innate immune response in the mucosa, resulting in increased susceptibility to intestinal pathogens (which is something we certainly don’t want). Subsequently, as found in cell culture studies, alcohol may trigger an immune system response and an up-regulation of molecules which promote the inflammatory response, including a release of inflammatory immune cells, such as leukocytes and mast cells.

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Drinking alcohol even in moderate amounts has been linked in a study published in the British Medical Journal to memory problems.

One of the most important connections the gut has is to the brain. This connection is so influential that the gut has even been dubbed the “second brain.” Changes in the microbiome can lead to an imbalanced expression of certain neurotransmitters, leading to a range of mood and neurological disorders.

It actually makes sense as alcohol can cause intestinal inflammation leading to intestinal permeability and consequently to systemic inflammation (as well as brain inflammation).

How much alcohol is considered safe?

Again, this really depends on the individual and their health conditions. Generally said alcohol should be looked at as a treat—which is meant to be consumed only occasionally and in true moderation.

There is no doubt that alcohol can be inflammatory, mostly due to the burden that it puts on your GI tract and liver, indirectly affecting your detoxification capability. Not to mention, alcohol can affect your blood sugar, cause poor sleep, and as a result drive you to indulge in processed and sugar-filled foods; foods that no-doubt contribute to inflammation.

If you are having problems with your gut, inflammation, mood or sleeping issues for example and have tried all the “right” things then it could be that eliminating those few drinks on the weekend or a glass of wine in the evening doing the trick.

A great idea is to replace your alcoholic drink with a cocktail and or an adaptogenic elixir. It has been studied that people who participate in a month of no alcohol drinking experience: 71% better sleep, 67% more energy, 58% weight loss, 57% better concentration, 54% improved skin.

Are there any healthier types of alcohol?

Absolutely there is a different of what type of alcohol you consume. The best alcoholic drink is the one which causes the least inflammatory response based on its ingredients. For example, gluten containing alcoholic beverages will be inflammatory for most people. Here are some healthier choices:

  1. Red wine
    Certain red wines can contain mycotoxins, which is a by-product of mould. This can cause nausea, headaches etc. after consumption. Therefore, I would recommend opting for organic, sulphate free brands to avoid any contamination.
  2. Cider
    A delicious gluten free refreshing alcoholic drink is cider made from apples. Again, it would be better to buy organic and low sugar cider brands.
  3. Vodka
    Vodka is another great choice when you need to avoid grains as most Vodka brands are made from potatoes. Avoid flavoured options with added sugar though.
  4. Gin
    Most people either love or hate gin. Gin is distilled using botanicals like coriander, juniper and cinnamon which have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties as well as blood sugar stabilising qualities.

    Gin is made by using wheat and barley but experts argue that the distillation process breaks down the gluten protein and therefore people with moderate level of gluten sensitivity can tolerate it.

  5. Tequila
    Tequila makes a surprisingly healthy choices as it is made from 100% agave. Always check though as there are some brands which use grain to make their tequila. Mixed with a splash of lime and on the rocks, it is also low in sugar.

  6. Whiskey
    Not one of my first choice of the healthier options as Whiskey is mostly made out gluten containing grains but Whiskey can also be found made out of corn.

  7. In general, choose your mixers wisely:
    Start saying no to sodas or any pre-mixed syrups which are loaded with sugar. For example: Kombucha makes a healthy mixer with the added benefit of probiotics and antioxidant power of tea.

Got a special event ahead?

Here are some tips to help you enjoy a glass or two while keeping your liver and body safe and healthy.

  • Drink lots of water before and after you drink alcohol
    Alcohol wreaks more havoc on your mind and body if you are dehydrated. To prevent a dreaded hangover, drink plenty of water between drinks and before you go to bed. Drink extra water the day after drinking to help your liver continue to detox efficiently.

  • Never drink on an empty stomach
    Having food in your stomach before you start drinking prevents your blood alcohol levels from spiking – and keeps you on your feet.

  • Again, choose wine over beer or sugary spirits
    Dry red or white wine contain less sugar than beer or cocktails, which makes detoxing easier on your body. If you don’t like wine, try a gin or vodka with sparkling water and lime for a low-sugar, healthier option.

  • Take NAC after a night of drinking
    Studies show that N-acetylcysteine is one of the best antioxidants to help with liver detox. It is found in foods like garlic, fish, eggs, whole grains, and legumes, as well as in supplements.

  • Exercise to improve alcohol detox
    Exercising improves blood circulation and helps your body detox from alcohol faster. The fresh air and boost in endorphins also relieve those next-day headaches or feelings of depression or anxiety. 

What are your favourite “healthy” alcoholic drinks that you like to drink in moderation?
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