“Healthy drinking” feels a bit like an oxymoron. Much like any tasty thing, alcohol is best sipped in moderation. Now, this isn’t a blog set on convincing you to quit alcohol for good—alcohol has some benefits, too (cue red wine and heart health)—but let’s dive into the ways it impacts your body from the inside out, and talk about practical tips you can use to prevent the unwelcome side effects too many drinks can bring.
1. Alcohol Impacts Your Blood Sugar
When you imbibe in alcohol, you increase your blood sugar levels. And that’s just if you sip a vodka on the rocks. Combine that drink with something sugary and your blood sugar levels are going to go through the roof. Since these drinks typically don’t have fiber, protein, or fat to help decrease your blood glucose spike, you’ll find your blood sugar levels get really high (along with your insulin levels) and then in a relatively quick time frame, crash, leaving you hungry, shaky, and ready to make bad food decisions.
Trying to stick to healthy eating goals that include low sugar or low-refined carbs? I’ve got some bad news: The spike in blood glucose from alcohol isn’t different than the spike in blood glucose levels you get from carbs—it’s the same mechanism, and can have the same side effects.
2. Alcohol Impairs Your Digestion
You may know that alcohol is metabolized by the liver, but what you might not know is that the rate at which it does this is mostly genetically determined. While you sip your cocktail, your liver is hard at work breaking down the alcohol—on top of all the other tasks it usually does, such as metabolizing your estrogens, activating your thyroid hormone, and breaking down toxins that are in your body.
Not only can alcohol distract your liver from its other tasks, drinking alcohol has also been linked to reflux, lower stomach acid production, stomach pains, and bowel irregularities. Plus, when you don’t have enough stomach acid to break down your foods, it decreases the nutrients available to be absorbed by the small intestine. That means by drinking, you can actually decrease the amount of nutrients that you absorb from your food or supplements, while also depleting the nutrient stores your body has.
Your stomach acid is also responsible for killing off bacteria and other pathogens that may be present on your foods as they enter your digestive tract. Left unkilled, they can populate in your upper and lower digestive tract and lead to symptoms like gas, bloating, and constipation—or worse, they can contribute to conditions like SIBO and other gut dysbiosis.
3. Alcohol Interferes With Your Sleep
Many of my patients are so ‘wired and tired’ by the end of the the night, they often report that they have one to two glasses of wine or liquor before bed to help calm their body and mind to get a good night’s sleep. While alcohol can be a sedative and help to calm your mind, research actually shows us that consumption of alcohol doesn’t allow you to get very deep sleep. Plus, it can make you more prone to waking up to disruptive noises, temperature changes, or other stimuli that typically wouldn’t wake you up.
So it may help you fall asleep, but sipping a glass of wine before bed won’t get you into the deep, rested, and rejuvenated state that your body needs to be in.
And if you find yourself waking up between 3 and 4 a.m., after you’ve had a couple of drinks with dinner? The culprit could be the alcohol. It takes your body about six to seven hours to metabolize those two drinks, and then your blood sugar can crash, leaving you wide awake because your body needs glucose to rebalance.
4. Alcohol Alters Your Metabolism
We’ve discussed how alcohol can spike your blood sugar and insulin, which can directly slow down your metabolism, but there are compounding ways in which it can also slow down your weight loss. One way alcohol can do this is by decreasing the systemic uptake of your thyroid hormone by your cells.
When your cells aren’t able to uptake your T3 (your active thyroid hormone), your body will convert them into an inactive, storage form of the hormone that can actually sabotage your body in other ways like progesterone deficiency, neurotransmitter imbalances, HPA Axis Dysfunction, and more.
And to put the cherry on top, 80 percent of your thyroid hormone is converted into the active T3 in your liver. So if your liver is busy metabolizing all your alcohol, its priority is not converting your thyroid hormone.
Drinking can also deplete vital nutrients like magnesium, selenium, B-vitamins, vitamins C, E, and zinc that alter the speed of your metabolism. For example, magnesium is important in the production of your cellular energy and it helps to power your mitochondria (cellular battery packs!). Magnesium and vitamin C are also necessary to healthy adrenal function, and selenium is essential to proper thyroid function.
And if that hasn’t convinced you of the link between a slower metabolism and drinking, this might: It’s actually been demonstrated that alcohol consumption can activate enzymes that increase fat accumulation in your body—and decrease fat breakdown all by itself.
5. Alcohol Impacts Your Hormones
You might have heard all of this before—but do you know about the link between alcohol and your hormones? Researchers have found that women who consumed alcohol moderately had higher levels of estrogens in their bodies, as well as a decreased ability to metabolize those estrogens (which may leave your estrogens converting to the possibly cancerous estrogen metabolite).
This increase in estrogen (especially around ovulation time), researchers found, can affect ovulation, and the quality of your follicle (egg). Your follicle is the stimulus for progesterone secretion— it can release its own source, but it also alerts your own body that it’s time to produce progesterone. The conclusion? Moderate alcohol consumption can cause lower progesterone levels, which can affect mood, sleep quality, can exacerbate PMS symptoms, and can cause heavy menstrual flow.
Interesting, huh? Now, I hope I didn’t just scare you away from enjoying an adult beverage, but instead convinced you to drink responsibly.
Because I definitely don’t discourage all alcohol consumption, I also want to give you a few tips to help you sip a cocktail responsibly. Here’s how to help your body process that boozy eggnog.
5 Tips to Healthy Drinking
- Eat something first. Drinking on an empty stomach not only gets you sloshed really fast, but it can also leave you feeling hungry, irritable, and shaky. Reach first for a snack that’s higher in fiber and protein to help keep blood sugar stabilized.
- Skip the sugar-laden drinks. If you’re going to drink, choose higher quality alcohols such as vodka, tequila, or gin and mix it with non-sugar mixers such as soda water, sparkling waters, or water on the rocks.
- Schedule your drinking days. This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy an impromptu beverage at family dinner, but if you plan your drinking days in advance, you won’t find yourself indulging every night of the week.
- There is such a thing as clean alcohol. Surprise—if you didn’t already know, there are companies producing wines that have low amounts of sulfites, are naturally or biodynamically farmed, are gluten free, and are without all the additives! If wine is your go-to, try one that is toxin free.
- Plan your supplemental support. Taking a supplemental liver and antioxidant support can help decrease inflammation, support your liver to do its job, and replenish antioxidant nutrients that can be depleted with alcohol consumption.
Need a few tips for how to manage your diet, alcohol included? Schedule an introductory appointment with our dietician. She’ll help you get on the best track for you.
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.