This is a good time of year to explore alcohol and health. The holiday season is right around the corner – a time when people generally eat more, drink more, and loosen their boundaries when it comes to healthy living. The thought process is often, “I’ll just enjoy the holidays and then get back on track in January.”  Some people consume excessive amounts of sugar. Others increase their alcohol intake. And many do both! After all, there are so many celebrations, especially now that we’ve made it out of the 2020 pandemic – or did we?

Post-Pandemic Health Facts

  • 61% of adults reported weight gain (an average of 29 pounds). Many people ate more processed food, sugar, and junk food
  • 78% reported increased stress
  • Many people decreased their regular exercise
  • 23% of adults reported drinking more alcohol to cope with stress (the number jumps to 52% for parents of children ages 5-7)

If you stop and think about whether or not we have all bounced right back to normal, look around you and ask yourself if your friends and family are still struggling with any lifestyle choices. Let’s focus on just that last fact and take a look at how alcohol affects your health.

Is Red Wine Still Healthy?

For years now, we’ve been led to believe that the health benefits of red wine come from the drink’s antioxidants, especially one called resveratrol. Resveratrol comes from red grape skins and is a heart-healthy compound. Keep in mind, that white wine does not contain any resveratrol. However, several experts agree, that there’s probably not enough resveratrol in the amounts people normally consume for it to have a significant health benefit. And drinking more red wine is not the answer.

A  recent study in the Lancet concluded that zero alcohol is best to minimize health risks. The same report shows only modest cardiovascular benefits, but not when considering the many ways alcohol can threaten health. Alcohol consumption increases cancer risk, liver problems, and traffic injuries. Any protective effect goes away, even at low doses.

Another study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reviewed evidence from more than 50 studies that linked drinking habits and cardiovascular health for over 260,000 people. The study’s co-author, Michael Holmes, MD, Ph.D., concluded that contrary to earlier reports, it now appears that any exposure to alcohol has a negative impact on heart health. In fact, the evidence is adding up that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe.

Alcohol and Health: Weight Loss

Alcohol slows down fat metabolism. Some sources show it can shut down fat burning for 12 to 36 hours. When you consume alcohol (a toxin), your body is mainly concerned with processing and eliminating it. This impairs all other essential metabolic functions. There’s a strong connection between alcohol and fat metabolism because of the liver’s role in so many metabolic processes. Even moderate drinking can lead to fatty liver, a condition that affects the way the body metabolizes and stores fats and carbohydrates. Regular alcohol consumption can also lower testosterone, a hormone that affects both weight loss and muscle mass gain.

Alcohol Increases Appetite

Not only does alcohol contain more calories than carbohydrates and protein (7 calories per gram), but it also affects weight loss by increasing appetite. In mice studies, alcohol activates brain signals (AGRP neurons) that encourage the body to eat. It’s an effect similar to starvation, which also activates these neurons. When that happens, we eat more. And if you are consuming mixed drinks, the calories and sugar add up quickly along with extra food.

Alcohol also lowers inhibitions making it more likely to overeat and choose unhealthy foods. In one study, women who were heavier drinkers or engaged more in binge drinking had an increased risk of obesity.

Other Ways Alcohol Affects Health

  • Alcohol can make you feel less interested in exercise. It can also impair the body’s ability to recover after a workout and cause a reduced ability to burn excess calories with exercise.
  • Drinking can cause blood sugar imbalances and promote insulin resistance, making it harder to lose weight and increasing your risk of diabetes.
  • Alcohol can create hormone imbalances and affect thyroid function.
  • Regular drinking impairs sleep and decreases overall energy.
  • Alcohol provides empty calories, meaning it doesn’t help meet your nutritional needs. This is another reason you may end up eating more when consuming alcohol regularly.
  • Some studies suggest that alcohol intake promotes visceral fat (belly fat), increasing your risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
  • Chronic alcohol consumption can impair liver function (involved with energy storage, fat metabolism, digestion, hormone production, and 500 other critical functions).

Introducing “Gray Area” Drinking

Gray area drinking is that space between social and destructive drinking. It’s any level of drinking that negatively affects your life or your health. With this type of alcohol consumption, there is no “rock bottom.” Many gray area drinkers are high-functioning people who think their consumption falls within the “acceptable” range. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking  as follows:

  • Men – 4 drinks on any day or 14+ drinks a week
  • Women – 3 drinks on any day or 7+ drinks a week

However, many people can exist in the gray area without having major problems and it’s not too difficult for some to drift right into the heavy drinking range, even on occasion. Or go back and forth between the two. In fact, according to the CDC, about 90% of people who drink excessively would not meet the criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder (AUD). Note: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is the newer term that replaces “alcoholic.” Ask yourself if you are a gray-area drinker.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as:

  • Men – 2 drinks a day or less
  • Women – 1 drink a day or less

One drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor (but most people are not measuring). Even moderate drinking can push some people into that gray area during certain times (such as holidays, celebratory events, and during prolonged stress). It’s important to realize that although certain organizations have established acceptable ranges, no amount of alcohol consumption is safe and is associated with many health risks.

Alcohol and Health: Sleep

While many people say alcohol helps them get to sleep, any amount of alcohol disrupts normal sleep cycles. According to William Porter, author of Alcohol Explained, here is how that happens. Alcohol is both a chemical depressant and a stimulant. When you drink you put in a depressant (alcohol) and your brain releases natural stimulants in an effort to achieve homeostasis (balance). But as the alcohol gets processed out of your body, the depressant effect goes away and you’re left with the stimulants. This usually happens in about 4-5 hours. After that, you can’t get back to sleep. This is why many people who drink alcohol regularly, wake up between 1 and 3 a.m. and then have difficulty returning to restful sleep. This process also activates your mind, stimulating more stressful thinking.

Alcohol and Health: Mycotoxins

Mycotoxins are poisonous byproducts of molds, fungi, and yeasts. “Myco” means fungus and “toxin” means poison. Alcohol fits the definition of mycotoxin since it’s a product of sugar fermented by brewer’s yeast, a type of fungus. In addition, many of the ingredients used to make alcohol, such as barley (beer), corn and rye (whiskey), potatoes (vodka), and grapes (wine), are often high in molds and therefore likely to be contaminated with mycotoxins. Not only can alcohol be harmful to your health, but the mycotoxins in most alcoholic beverages can do further damage, especially in people with chronic health conditions.

For optimal health eliminate alcohol completely, especially if you want to lose weight and keep it off. The same advice is recommended for anyone who wants to increase daily energy. Lastly, if you have any difficulty eliminating alcohol from your life (even for short periods), seek professional help.