With summer vibes being in the air, naturally we tend to be more social and go on more vacations, which often come hand in hand with increased alcohol consumption.
And so around this time of year, I often get asked a myriad of questions by patients about all aspects relating to alcohol consumption. Is alcohol healthy? How much is too much? What kinds of alcohol are best? How to minimize the side effects of alcohol? And how does alcohol consumption fit into other health goals (ie. Weight management, hormone balancing, gut health)?
So I thought I’d give a summary of my suggestions around “healthy” alcohol consumption….
First of all, let’s just remember that although alcohol has been touted to have certain health benefits (ie. the anti-oxidants in wine, the bitter component in some beers, etc) the reality is that it is a toxin to the body. In fact, the body will prioritize metabolizing and breaking it down over other important processes in the body (which is why in excess it can lead to all kinds of imbalances). So like all guilty pleasures in life, it should be enjoyed in moderation and with a healthy mindset.
So, what is a healthy mindset around alcohol?
Well, part of my process in determining this involves exploring a person’s reason for and behaviours around consuming alcohol.
Some questions I explore may include: Do you use it to bury or minimize stress? Is it used to boost confidence or to be able to engage socially? Do you use it to relax your mind/body? Are you able to limit your consumption (can you have just one)? Do you feel regret the morning after? Does drinking interfere with your relationships, job, sleep, motivation etc? And so on….
These questions provide a lot of insight into whether a person has a “healthy” relationship to alcohol. At the end of the day I employ my patients to do more of what makes them feel alive, feel good and feel connected. And to do less of anything that doesn’t….which for some may include alcohol consumption.
So next question is…what does drinking in moderation mean?
The CDC defines moderate alcohol consumption for women as no more than 1 drink/sitting or 5 drinks/week and for men as no more than 2 drinks/sitting or 10 drinks/week.
And remember that a drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 8 ounce of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)
So with all that off the table, let’s now discuss which individuals I often advise against drinking until their health concerns have been addressed (I do not discuss substance abuse and/or other serious mental health concerns as this subject is beyond the scope of this blog):
- Those with gut issues. This includes individuals with IBS, Crohn’s/Colitis, reflux/GERD, chronic constipation/diarrhea, SIBO (small intestinal bowel overgrowth), food sensitivities, etc. First, alcohol is an irritant to the gut lining, which can add fuel to a fire. Second, alcohol is a sugar/simple carb that feeds bacteria and can aggravate situations where there may already be an imbalance in gut bacteria.
- Those struggling with weight gain. Again, alcohol is a sugar which means it adds to your metabolic load. However, in this case they are “empty calories” because they do not satiate or provide any nutritional value. Additionally, it often impairs your decision making which may mean poorer food choices and eating larger quantities.
- Those who suffer from poor sleep and/or are chronically fatigued. These go hand in hand. And studies have shown that alcohol interrupts REM sleep, the good deep sleep that restores vitality and energy.
- Those with hormone imbalances (especially estrogen dominance). Alcohol increases circulating estrogens in the body, which is not a good thing if you struggle with estrogen driven symptom’s including PMS, heavy periods, clots, weight gain, mood swings, endometriosis, fibroids, etc.
And so if you do fall into one of the categories listed above, it is important to understand that consuming alcohol may be preventing you from achieving your optimal wellness. Ultimately, we all have to make decisions on what we’re willing to and not willing to give up in order to feel our best…it’s a push and pull, give and take…but knowing what factors influence your ability to do so is a first step.
For those who do choose to consume alcohol I’ve outlined some key things to consider that will help minimize the side effects and keep alcohol as a friend, not foe.
- Stay hydrated! Alcohol dehydrates your body. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids during and after consuming alcohol. Bonus: add an electrolyte formula that helps to restore cellular hydration.
- Protect your gut health. As we learnt above, alcohol can cause intestinal damage and inflammation. So make sure you choose foods that don’t add fuel to fire, which would include avoiding fried foods, dairy, gluten, processed foods, sugary foods and any known food sensitivities. Pro tip: If you have IBS to begin with, restrict foods high on the FODMAP list when consuming alcohol; these are foods that are easily fermented by gut bacteria that are out of balance. Search the internet for the Low FODMAP diet for more info.
- Support your liver. Your liver is the main organ involved in processing alcohol, so protecting and helping its function will reduce unwanted side effects. My top supplements include N-Acetyl-Cysteine, Milk thistle, Dandelion root, magnesium and B-vitamins. Pro tip: Get an IV (Intravenous) injection with glutathione for potent antioxidant and detoxification support.
- Choose your alcohol wisely. Reduce or avoid your intake of beer, ciders and liqueurs. Instead choose clear alcohol including vodka, gin, tequila (the good kind) and mezcal. Wine is a tricky one since it does have the most antioxidant content, however it also contains high amounts of sugar. Try to choose wines that are organic, sulfite free and the dryer varieties (merlot, cab, sauvignon blanc, etc)
- Limit added sugars/mixers. This includes fruit juices, mixers and sugary syrups in mixed drinks.
- Stick to the moderate alcohol intake guidelines. Refer to above.
- Sweat it out before and after. Exercise and movement help the body recover from alcohol ingestion by boosting metabolism and detoxification.
- Keep your regular bedtime and waking hours. One of the biggest mistake people make is something called the “weekend warrior” routine. This is where a person alters their sleeping habits on the weekends, which disrupts your circadian rhythm and impacts your bodies overall resilience and ability to recover from the stress of alcohol ingestion.
Bottom line…choosing to drink alcohol involves weighing the benefits vs risks unique to you. Everyone is different….metabolizes alcohol differently, has different health conditions to consider, uses it for a different purpose, etc. Carefully considering whether it adds or subtracts to your quality of life is a key part of enjoying it responsibly.
Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND