From nights out with friends, a glass or two of wine at dinner, or happy hours, alcohol is a hot topic in my practice and often times my biggest challenge. It is one of life’s most desired simple pleasures. Clients are always asking me about how much alcohol they can consume without gaining weight, but there’s so much more to it than just the weight (more on this below). I also get asked often, “do you drink alcohol?”. The answer to this is, yes but not often and you’re about to learn why!
We all know I am a big believer in knowledge is power. The more you know and understand something, the better and wiser you’ll be (or so I hope) when making decisions about what you put into your body. So, what really happens to your body when you consume alcohol?
Let’s start with the basics.
WHAT IS ALCOHOL?
The alcohol we drink is called, ethanol. It’s produced through a process called fermentation. During fermentation yeast digest in certain carbohydrates such as grains, starches and grapes. The fermentation process creates two byproducts: liquid and gas. The gas is carbon dioxide. The liquid is ethanol i.e., the intoxicating ingredient in alcohol beverages.
WHAT FOODS ARE USED TO MAKE ALCOHOL?
Alcohol is made from fruit, grains or potatoes. Here’s a breakdown of which food creates which popular alcohols:
Remember that everything you put into your body, your body wants to utilize for energy and overall health and survival. So, it’s important to know that with every drop that enters your mouth, what happens next?
HOW ALCOHOL TRANSLATES THROUGH THE BODY
MOUTH: Some alcohol is absorbed through the lining of the mouth, but most enters your stomach, where an enzyme called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase begins to digest it. How much alcohol dehydrogenase your body can produce is influenced by your ethnicity and your gender. This is a one, of many, reasons why some people can “tolerate” more alcohol then others. Ladies, take NOTE. The average women (regardless of ethnicity) makes less alcohol dehydrogenase then the average man. As a result, more unmetabolized alcohol will enter her bloodstream. This is why women are more likely to feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than the average man. This is also a reason why women tend to have worse hangovers then men.
The majority of the alcohol you consume is absorbed through the small intestine. From here, it flows through the portal vein straight into your liver.
LIVER: The liver breaks down and filters out harmful substances in the blood and manufacturers enzymes, proteins, and hormones that the body uses to ward off infections. It also converts vitamins, minerals, nutrients and medications into substances our body can use. (Note: do not combine alcohol with medications, antibiotics, blood thinners, antidepressants, sedatives, pain meds, Tylenol and muscle relaxants. This can be very damaging to your liver.) The liver is responsible for cleaning out our blood, producing bile for digestion and storing glycogen for energy.
Once it enters the liver, an enzyme called ADH, metabolizes the alcohol which it will then try to convert into energy by a coenzyme called NAD (NAD is also used to convert glucose from other carbohydrates). It takes the body about 1 hour to process ½ ounce of pure alcohol. The higher someone’s blood content, the longer it takes to process. When someone has too much to drink, the alcohol left unprocessed by the liver, circulates through the bloodstream. The alcohol in the blood effects the heart, brain, and this is how people become intoxicated.
Remember, a healthy liver can process about ½ ounce of pure alcohol in an hour. The rest will flow on to your heart. It’s important to understand that your body can only process a SMALL amount of alcohol within a 60-minute period. So, if you’re the type to drink 2-3 or more drinks within an hour, here’s a BIG NOTE TO SELF to slow your role.
HEART: When alcohol enters your heart, it will reduce the force with which the heart muscle contracts (SCARY!). You will pump out slightly less blood for a few minutes, which makes your blood vessels all over your body relax, and your blood pressure to decrease temporarily. This is part of the reason why people feel more “relaxed” when they sip alcohol. The contractions will return to normal, but the blood vessels will remain relaxed and your blood pressure will stay low for as long as a half hour.
NOTE: This is the process with only ½ ounce of pure alcohol per hour. So, if you’re consuming a lot more than this in an hour, you can now understand how dangerous this can be for your liver, heart and body.
SKIN & BREATH: Alcohol makes your blood vessels expand so warm blood will flow from the center of your body to your skin. This is what makes you turn “pink” when you drink alcohol or maybe feel warmer than usual. Once the alcohol rises to your skin, small amounts will start to come out through our pores, making you smell like alcohol (gross!). NOTE: The liver processes about 90% of alcohol. The other 10% exits through sweat, urine and breathe.
BRAIN: NOTE: Alcohol is a depressant, not a mood enhancer. It is known to be the most widely used natural relaxant. When the alcohol reaches your brain, it slows down the transmission impulses between your nerve cells that control your ability to move and think properly. This is where people tend to loosen up, feel more relaxed but also, make poor (ah hem, dietary) decisions.
THE END: The cycle will continue until you stop drinking. So, the more drinks you have, the more your liver must produce enough enzymes to metabolize. So, if you’re drinking beyond what your body can process in 1 session, alcohol will keep circulating through your body for many hours putting a lot of stress on your stomach, liver, heart, blood vessels, and pretty much every muscle and organ in your body. Additionally, it creates toxic build up, and consumption of unwanted empty calories into your system (more on this below).
ALCOHOL AND YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
As we learned above, alcohol can damage your liver, cardiovascular, and digestive system. But it also affects your immune system. It’s important to remember this, every.single.time. you take a sip of alcohol. If you’re drinking a lot, and often, understand that the effects of excessive drinking can and will catch up to you. Hello, preventative health!!
Your digestive system controls 70% of your immune system. The microbes that live in your intestines play an important role fighting diseases. When you drink alcohol, especially in large amounts, it damages the epithelial cells in your intestines, making it harder for your body to absorb nutrients. It also destroys the microbes in your gut altering the balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria. Alcohol affects the way healthy gut microbes interact with your immune system, disrupts the gut barrier, allowing more bacteria to pass into the blood, causing inflammation everywhere.
Alcohol not only effects your gut health but it also effects the respiratory system. It can impair the function of the immune cells in your lungs and upper respiratory system, leading to risk of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and acute respiratory distress.
There are 3 important cells in your immune system – macrophages, T and B cells. Macrophages line up as your first line of defense against germs and diseases. They “eat” anything that is not supposed to be there, including germs found in colds, flu, viruses and even cancerous cells. Your T cells are antibodies to specific pathogens (bacteria, viruses). They are the reason vaccines work and why you can only get the chicken pox once. B cells are white blood cells that create cytokines that attack bacteria. Alcohol consumption (the more you drink the worse it is), suppresses T and B cells, which knocks down your immune system. This may not seem like a big deal but when you’re in a bar, or crowded place while drinking and your body is exposed to bacteria or viruses, your immune system is weakened and you’re more likely to get sick. This also goes backwards. If you’re still fighting a cold or flu and your immune system is working hard to kick it, by consuming alcohol you’re not doing your immune system any favors and prolonging your recovery.
POST EFFECTS OF DRINKING
Bad nights sleep? Because alcohol causes relaxation in your muscles, head, neck and throat, it can interfere with your breathing during sleep. This disrupts your circadian rhythm which leads to next day fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Also, depending on how much alcohol you consumed, your body is working hard on detoxifying itself and getting this out of the system asap. This process will also lead to poor sleep.
Feeling Quenched? Typically, you find yourself to be very thirsty, that’s because you lost a lot of excess water and electrolytes through frequent urination while drinking.
Stomach upset? When we drink alcohol our stomach lining becomes incredibility irritated causing stress and Gl inflammation. Whether you consume a lot or little, alcohol consumption leads to gastrointestinal tract inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. Both situations you do not want. Remember, 70% of your immune system is controlled in your GI. If you’re not going to give up alcohol, make sure to take a high-quality probiotic daily, Vitamin C (immunity and liver protection), and consume high fiber foods prior to alcohol consumption (slows alcohol absorption and makes gut bacteria happy).
Head pounds and your muscles ache? Your whole-body hurts because processing alcohol through your liver requires a lot of hard work. As alcohol passes through your liver, your liver also requires the same enzyme that is used to convert lactic acid (byproduct of muscle activity). The extra buildup of unprocessed lactic acid piles up painfully in your muscles causing you to feel achy.
ALCOHOL AND WEIGHT
First thing is first. Unlike carbohydrates, fats and protein, alcohol is made up of empty calories. Meaning, calories without nutrition. Therefore, it serves you 0 nutritional value and purpose. When your body digest alcohol, it becomes the first fuel source to burn (your body wants it out asap). If you are trying to lose weight, your body will burn these empty calories before it burns fat. So instead of burning fat, it’s burning your alcohol. Calories found in alcohol can also raise your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This is one (of the many) reasons why I highly recommend clients to skip the booze if you’re on a weight loss journey or trying to improve your overall health (high blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol, vitamin/mineral deficiencies).
Understand that alcohol supplies 7 calories per 1 gram. Almost twice as many calories as protein and carbohydrates. So, when mixed with other alcohols and mixers, you can get an idea of how quickly the calories add up in that 1 glass. Here’s a breakdown of average calories found in your favorite alcohols.
Let’s not also forget that alcohol is defined as a “relaxant”, which will have a big impact on your dietary decisions. So, if eating out (or at home) alcohol will manipulate your mind and make you care less about you’re dietary decisions, which then leads you to consuming even more calories than you need.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
I don’t want to be a negative Nancy and say you should never drink alcohol again. This is unrealistic for most and it’s okay to enjoy some alcohol every once and a while. BUT I WILL SAY, it would be in your best interest to decrease the amount of alcohol that you’re consuming daily and even weekly. It’s a depressant, creates a lot of inflammation/chaos in the body, throws off your circadian rhythm and causes easy weight gain (this is a snowball effect to more inflammation and health issues). You may hear Doctors prescribe, “a glass of wine a day”, this is mostly because of how much your liver can tolerate at one time. Not because it’s “healthy” for you. Reminder, there are 0 health benefits to consuming alcohol.
Also, if you’re going to consume alcohol, be sure to consume something you REALLY enjoy. Make it worth the effort on your body. Meaning, don’t just order a “vodka soda” because you’re in a social setting and feel like you have to. Just like food, quality of your alcohol matters, too! But understand, your body doesn’t need it and it doesn’t want it. So avoid it as much as you can but truly enjoy it (in small doses) every once and a while.
To conclude, if you’re going to make any goals in 2020, make one of those goals to consume less alcohol. Your body will thank you!