Alcohol: What's The Harm?
We all know that excess alcohol causes liver damage and even moderate levels have been linked to certain cancers. We might think of these as extreme case scenarios – “I’m not an alcoholic, and everything seems to give you cancer these days….”- but when it comes to alcohol there are several “day to day” issues that might negatively affect your health. Even if you eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly, could the negative effects of alcohol be undoing all your hard work?
Once again, I’m not anti-alcohol, but I always think information is a useful thing. And maybe a break for a few weeks is a good opportunity for a reset…
So what areas of health can alcohol affect?
Most of us find that alcohol can help send us to sleep quickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have fallen asleep after a big night out still wearing my make-up and even in the same outfit I left in! However, our quality of sleep when drinking alcohol is poor. Why? After the effects wear off, you end up spending less time in deep, stage 4, restorative sleep, and more time in the lighter, restless REM (rapid eye movement) stage. This effectively disrupts our body’s circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle. What’s more, even that initial sedative effect that let’s us drop off quickly, can wear off after our tolerance grows.
We hear more and more about the importance of sleep for health, especially in relation to weight management, recovery, anxiety and depression. I’ll be back to talk about this another time…https://campushealth.unc.edu/health-topics/sleep/caffeine-alcohol-and-other-drugs Have a break for a few weeks and notice if you start to feel more refreshed in the mornings – especially on the weekend. If you use a sleep tracker or Oura ring, you could even start to compare sleep patterns on the days you drink alcohol and the days you don’t.
Reaching for a beer, spirit or a glass of wine can easily be done after a stressful or long day. It as if like the drink can lift our spirits (pun intended!), but in the long-term alcohol can actually interfere with neurotransmitter production and negatively impact depression by lowering levels of serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter). Anyone taking antidepressants is advised to avoid alcohol, not just because it can worsen symptoms, but also the side effects.Have a break for a few weeks and see if you notice any changes to your overall mood. Finding alternative relaxation or stress relief activities such as meditation, walks outside or yoga may help you much more than alcohol both in the short and long term. Use the opportunity of an alcohol break to start to incorporate these into your routine. If you return to drinking, then you’ve picked up some new habits to turn to when you need to wind down!
By now you’re probably familiar with the concept of healthy and harmful bacteria that live in our guts. This bacteria plays a really important role in health, and alcohol can disrupt the balance of the gut environment, encouraging an overgrowth of the bad bacteria.
This imbalance can contribute to digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and flatulence, as well as leaky gut, which has been associated with a number of health issues, including food intolerances, eczema, acne and autoimmune conditions.
Alcohol itself can also irritate the stomach lining and encourage excessive acid production, as well as gastric reflux and can potentially cause stomach ulcers.If you experience digestive, skin or autoimmune issues, have a break of at least 4 weeks and see if you notice any changes. This can be particularly effective if it forms part of a gut health strategy that your nutritional therapist can guide you through.
If you’re putting in the gym time or training in sport, then alcohol can affect your recovery, and we all know how important that is!
If your goal is to build muscle, then drinking a lot of alcohol can be particularly counterproductive in its negative impact on the anabolic (building) hormones. Testosterone production can be reduced for up to 48 hours after drinking, and as little as 2-3 units of alcohol can reduce growth hormone production by up to 70%!
If you’re more into endurance-based sports, then be aware that alcohol can reduce your aerobic capacity by 25% the day after drinking.
Take a break for a few weeks (or longer) and notice any improvements in your training and performance. If you return to drinking after that, try to ease off the units on the nights of big training sessions, matches or competitions (as tempting as it might be) to get the most out of your recovery.
Like the word might suggest, an antinutrient is something that can rob our body of more nutrients than it can provide. Not only can alcohol disrupt digestion (as above) which in turn can affect our body’s ability to absorb nutrients (especially zinc and iron, and especially at meal times); but chronic alcohol drinking can also lead to deficiencies in several B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. These nutrients all have several functions in our bodies, but in particular they are involved in energy and mood, as well as immune function.
Alcohol needs to be detoxified, putting additional burden on our body’s detoxification systems. This strain on detoxification can be related to symptoms beyond the hangover, including poor concentration, headaches, and lack of energy.
Taking a Break
Taking a few weeks (or longer) off alcohol can be a good idea, especially if you’ve been creeping over the 14 units a week limit. Not only does this give your body a physical break and a chance to notice any physical changes, but it can also give you a really insightful look into your relationship with alcohol.
For many of us, taking away the alcohol itself is fine; but the idea of being in certain social situations or not having it as a hard-day reward can seem daunting. If this is the case, then it’s worthwhile reminding yourself of some (seemingly obvious) common-sense points:
- No one else really cares if you drink or if you don’t! After the initial surprise (or incredulity, if you’re often the heavy drinker on night’s out) people aren’t bothered. If they are, then maybe your social scene is always going to be at odds with your health goals…
- It’s not the alcohol that makes a night out! It’s the company and the atmosphere. You know that you're capable of laughing and relaxing when sober, so it shouldn’t be any different.
- You’ll probably save a nice amount if you switch to soft drinks on nights out, and ditch the wine or beers in front of Netflix in the evenings. Saving that money towards something specific can be a good motivator.
- Include more social events in your diary that don’t predominantly feature alcohol. This could be an ideal opportunity to take advantage of some different, fun activities (maybe even including ones you and your friends talked about over drinks…)
- Remind yourself why you’re doing it. Going sober doesn’t have to be permanent, but can just be thought of as a challenge for yourself.
Personally I think it’s good to take a break at least a few times a year to give yourself a chance to properly look at your habits. It’s also an opportunity to ask yourself some questions:
- Did you notice any differences in your health?
- Did you find it hard? If so, in what way? Did it get easier?
- Did you notice a pattern to your drinking?
After a break, it becomes much easier to set some new boundaries and introduce new habits for yourself. Maybe you'll discover new ways to unwind. Physically it allows you to reset your alcohol tolerance, making it easier to stick within the 14 unit guidelines. You may even find the benefits to be so great that you’re not particularly keen on reintroducing it back into your life!
For more detailed information on many of the different health effects, and useful tips in reducing you intake then check out the Drink Aware website: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/ Please note that if you do feel that you are dependent on alcohol and would like to stop, then a sudden withdrawal from alcohol could be extremely dangerous. Please consult your GP who will be able to refer you to the support that you need. Likewise if you experience any withdrawal symptoms, such as physical tremors, sweating nausea, visual hallucinations please contact your GP immediately.
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