How Bad is Alcohol for your Health?
As a child of college and football culture, I have most certainly enjoyed more than my share of libations and late-night parties that has left me seriously questioning my commitment to self-indulgence and vices. With that being said, the question always has presented itself of, how bad is drinking alcohol for you anyways?
We all understand that drinking too much leads to an earth-shattering hang over that causes you to swear off alcohol forever, but once it dissipates, we tend to forget the pain as quickly as mothers who have given birth, ready to do it again and again.
For me personally, I always have justified the fact that I eat well, exercise, hydrate often, and focus on a number of stress-management practices, so that way, a few nights out of alcohol indulgences just doesn’t seem all that bad. But the question still remained, especially as I have gotten older and the mechanism of bouncing back just ain’t what it used to be, how bad is alcohol for my health REALLY?
Therefore, this little piece is an investigation to see what really happens when you drink alcohol, and is it causing lasting damage, or are we able to heal and recover quickly enough to cancel out its negative effects? Because in the end I think we should all understand what it actually does to our physiology, whether we choose to engage in the activity or not. Knowledge is power, and the more we have, the better we can make the best decision for our life and health goals.
* Just a note: this post covers the basics about alcohol consumption for a moderate drinker. This post does not cover the details of alcoholism, which has far more health consequences.
Alcohol in your Body
How bad is alcohol for your health? Unlike other substances that we consume, alcohol receives special treatment as soon as it enters the body. Unlike other foods, alcohol requires no time for digestion and is quickly absorbed. For example, on an empty stomach, 20% of alcohol is directly absorbed and can reach the brain within 1 minute. On the other hand, if you have a full stomach, it takes more time for the alcohol to get through.
Once the alcohol is in the stomach, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase is released, which begins to digest the alcohol. These enzymes reduce the amount of alcohol getting to the bloodstream by about 20%. The interesting thing is that women produce less of this enzyme than men, which is part of the reason why men hold their alcohol better. The alcohol then travels to the small intestine where it receives specialty treatment. It is processed and absorbed before most all other nutrients and travels into the bloodstream.
Alcohol and your Liver
Once alcohol reaches your liver from the blood, the liver cells release the alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes. The liver can process about 1/2 ounce of ethanol (the amount in a typical drink) depending on the person’s weight, drinking experience, food intake and general health an hour. The problem is that since alcohol is a toxin, the liver puts aside all other jobs in order to process it. Therefore, while the liver normally process fatty acids, when alcohol is present, these fatty acids are left to accumulate, hence the development of the fatty liver.
If you drink more alcohol than the liver can handle, then the excess alcohol circulates around the body until the liver enzymes are able to process it. Every person also produces varying amounts of these enzymes, which is why some people are better at processing alcohol than others. But with that being said, practices such as fasting, or not eating all day and then drinking, reduces the amount of enzymes present, which leads to you feeling the effects of the alcohol more quickly than if you had eaten food.
How Alcohol Disrupts Normal Liver Functioning
- The coenzyme NAD is reduced, which greatly reduces critical energy pathways in the body
- Our pH balance shifts towards acid, which creates an environment for disease, dehydration, inflammation, and pain
- Fatty acid synthesis is impaired, leading the accumulation of fat *Fat accumulation can be seen in the liver after a single night of drinking
- Vitamin D cannot properly be activated – leading to low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is needed for proper immune functioning, prevents osteoporosis, and is essential to the brain and nervous system, muscles, cartilage, pancreas and reproductive organs
- Slows the release of bile – leading to poor digestion, gallstone development and the back up of toxins
- Death of liver cells and the formation of fibrous scar tissue
- The impairment of nutrient processing, hormone conjugation, and energy production
- Suppression of the nervous system
- Lactic Acid build up and uric acid secretion – leading to a higher risk of kidney stones and inflammation of the joints
- Alters protein metabolism – weakening the immune system and resulting in protein deficiency, despite a healthy diet
Alcohol in the Brain
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is a depressant and affects all nerve cells. Like liver cells, brain cells die with excessive exposure to alcohol. While liver cells can be replaced, not all brain cells can regenerate. Thus, permanent brain damage does occur. In addition, alcohol depresses production of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that retains water. This is why you get so dehydrated. But the bad part is, that with the loss of water, we also loose vital minerals, which are imperative to both our internal and external health.
Alcohol and Weight Gain
We all know that alcohol equals extra calories (each ounce of alcohol represents about a half-ounce of FAT) and late-night food binges, hence the inevitable increase in our waist line, but did you realize that it also causes an accumulation of fat due to its toxic nature? Because the liver is busy processing alcohol, other foods do not get processed, and instead are stored as fat. In addition, the toxic tagalongs of alcohol also are stored as fat, which is a way for your body to protect itself. So even if you are resisting the temptation to jump into a bag of french fries or a hot piece of pizza, anything that you eat while you are drinking has the possibility to be turned into stored fat deposits. Yikes!
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
Alcohol causes a reactive and immediate hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, by preventing the release of glucose from the liver. As a result, your body craves foods that will cause a quick rise in blood sugar such as refined carbohydrates (breads, chips, crackers), and sugars. Therefore, these cravings that you have for junk food while your drinking are actually real, making it nearly impossible to avoid poor dietary choices during this time.
Alcohol and Malnutrition
Like we touched on previously, alcohol disrupts the normal metabolism of nutrients. The B vitamin, Folate, is the nutrient that is most affected, since the liver is unable to retain it and the kidneys increase their excretion of it when alcohol is present in the body.
Folate is important because it converts homocysteine to methionine, and deficient folate results in an excess of homocysteine, which has been strongly linked to cardiovascular disease. In addition, this nutritional state has also been linked to colorectal cancer.
B1 (Thiamin) and B6 are other B vitamins that gets depleted by alcohol consumption. Thiamin is necessary for proper heart, nerve and muscle function and is an integral part of energy production, while B6 is essential for gallbladder and therefore digestive function. B6 is also needed for red blood cell production, sugar and starch processing, adrenal functioning and inflammation control.
For those who are alcoholics, they suffer from a long list of nutrient deficiencies, specifically from; zinc, vitamin A, antioxidants, carnitine, amino acids, vitamin C, selenium, B vitamins, magnesium, essential fatty acids, and glutamine.
Other Toxic Effects
- Causes stomach cells to over secrete gastric acid and histamine, causing inflammation and pain, and increasing your chances of ulcers
- Interferes with the body’s use of nutrients, making them ineffective even if they are present
- Damages the intestinal cells, which inhibits B vitamins, especially B12, folate and thiamin absorption. Also increases intestinal permeability, allowing toxic materials to enter the bloodstream, as well as increases food allergies
- Cells in the retina of the eye, which normally process the alcohol form of Vitamin A (retinol) to its aldehyde form needed in vision (retinal), process ethanol to acetaldehyde instead, therefore impairing vision
- Some alcohols such as beer are high in estrogens, leading to abdominal and handle bar weight gain, hormone imbalance, estrogen dominance, and infertility
- Non-organic alcohol, especially wine, contains high levels pesticides, which interfere with hormone balance, and can lead to a host of problems ranging from allergies to cancer
- Direct damage to the cells by the free radicals produced by ethanol metabolism (alcohol digestion)
- High blood pressure and heart muscle damage
- Reduced testosterone production and erectile dysfunction
- Cancer: increases risk of esophagus, larynx, liver and colon
* NOTE: these effects only cover those that pertain to moderate consumption. These DO NOT include all the side effects and health effects of those suffering from alcoholism. That list is extensive.
The Bottom Line
I am most certainly going to come out and say that I am NOT swearing off alcohol for life, but I definitely am more mindful of my consumption frequency, what alcohol I choose, as well as its quality. Because alcohol is bad for your health. For one, organic is a must, and due to the hormone implications, I tend to stick with red wine, and the occasional hard liquor. Definitely check out my post on organic wine (yes, I do love myself some red wine on occasion!), plus red wine does have some great health benefits as well that should not be written off.
Secondly, I am much more mindful of taking extra B vitamins ( I love Max B ND by Premier Research Labs), minerals and increasing my water intake as well. Finally, I taken Silymarin, or Milk Thistle, in order to offset any damage to the liver that I have done. Silymarin has shown to not only protect the liver cells, but has also shown to increase the production of new liver cells. I personally really love the Silymarin product by Pure Encapsulations since it does not have any toxic additives, binders, glues or fillers. NOT all supplements are created equal, meaning the majority are slightly toxic, and not that effective. Check out my series on supplements to learn more.
While my days of late night partying with Mr. Daniels are over, I think the occasional celebratory glass is still on the menu. As for the rest of the time, I am sticking to my Kombucha and green juice… both of which I find to be far more rewarding and satisfying options that most certainly propel me towards my ultimate health and happiness goals 🙂
I hope this has helped you to make the best and most responsible decision for you and drinking, because if we do decide to engage, it is so important to understand how to keep yourself as healthy as possible while doing it!
Understanding Nutrition. Whitney and Rolfes. 10th ed.
Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Balch. 4th ed.
Textbook of Natural Healing. Pizzorno and Murray. 3rd ed.