Worried that drinking is damaging your health? Charlotte Watts tells us exactly what alcohol is doing to your body and how to drink smart
When it comes to alcohol, there are some choices that are better for you than others. ‘Alcohol is very high in calories and has no nutritional value, many say the exception to this being good quality red wine.’ Charlotte Watts tells us. ‘Red wine contains resveratrol, a flavonoid that studies have shown, can raise levels of good cholesterol, support heart function and even has some immune supporting properties.’
Red wine – the deeper the colour the better
In her book De-Stress Effect, The: Rebalance Your Body’s Systems For Vibrant Health And Happiness Charlotte gives helpful tips on how to pick the alcohol that is best for your health. ‘Quality is key: spend more and buy less to become a connoisseur rather than a guzzler. You can even encourage your friends to do the same. In red wine, the deeper the colour, the higher the antioxidant count, with the best amounts seen in Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti. Rioja and Pinot Noir are in the middle and the least benefit comes from Côtes du Rhône.’
In red wine, the deeper the colour, the higher the antioxidant count, with the best amounts seen in Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti.
If you’re not a big fan of wine, spirits are also a good option. ‘Spirits are distilled rather than fermented, which means no sugar needs to be present and hence, they don’t taste sweet. So we get the alcohol kick, but not the sugar load. They can be a good way to regulate sugar intake, as that will then depend on the mixer.’
‘Some say that grain-based alcohols like beer, ales and vodka may affect those with digestive issues, but all alcohol depletes beneficial bacteria (probiotics) on the gut wall needed for digestion, immunity and mood regulation.’
When trying to avoid the calories while drinking, your choice of mixer is just as big a decision as your alcohol. ‘Often mixers are the source of massive sugar intake whilst drinking.’ says Charlotte. ‘The nine teaspoons of sugar in a can of cola for instance is a detrimental load and concentrate orange juices sold in pubs can have the same or even more. Sweeteners instead e.g. low-cal tonic can upset brain chemistry and contribute to disordered blood sugar regulation. Soda is always the best choice to avoid the sugar.’
Often mixers are the source of massive sugar intake whilst drinking
Champagne is a good choice (hurrah!)
Speaking of sugar, Charlotte recommends opting for non-sweet beverages. ‘When something tastes sweet it is or it contains a sweetener – a substance that tells the brain you’ve consumed sugar (setting off the same cascade) without the calories. Choosing the driest, least sweet drink and retraining your taste in that direction (it soon changes) is the best way to reduce sugar in alcohol. Here are a few more helpful tips:
- Champagne or dry white wines contain less sugar than sweeter red or white wines; they are the best choice for those wanting the occasional celebratory drink while staying off sweet tastes.
- Gin or vodka with soda and a twist of lime are the best low-sugar choices, providing water for hydration and avoiding the problem sugars or sweeteners in mixers. Whisky, vodka, gin and rum have little sugar when drunk on their own, so switch to an occasional shot on the rocks.
- Beers, dessert wines, fortified wines (e.g. sherry, port), sweet wines and brandy all have high sugar content, so avoid these.
Choosing the driest, least sweet drink and retraining your taste in that direction (it soon changes) is the best way to reduce sugar in alcohol.
So – does alcohol make me fat?
Hmmm, yes. Alcohol can also cause weight gain. ‘As a sugar source, alcohol has the same effects as any other, raising insulin and turning on fat storage by increasing fatty deposits in the liver. Sugar excess of that which we need as energy creates fat storage around the middle, also shown to be an effect of stress (through raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol) and continuous consumption of alcohol over an extended period of time has been shown to raise cortisol levels in the body. This is the root cause of the classic ‘beer belly’. But it is not only beer that has a huge effect on weight. ‘Sweeter drinks like fortified wines, sherry and port are much higher in sugar, so increase weight gain tendencies that route.’
Sweeter drinks like fortified wines, sherry and port are much higher in sugar, so increase weight gain tendencies that route.
Alcohol not only causes weight gain, but also can leave us with that horrible bloated feeling. ‘Alcohol also tends to make us bloat as it puts a burden on the liver and potential electrolyte mineral imbalance that can create fluid retention. For women it may also increase oestrogen levels, which tend to promote weight gain in the more female areas; bum, thighs and hips.’
‘Basically it takes the liver 8 hours to detoxify one measure of alcohol, during this time its ability to deal with other toxins is reduced. The antioxidant nutrients vitamins A, C and E and the minerals zinc and selenium are vital for liver function as well as protecting the body against this susceptibility. An antioxidant formula can be found in good health food shops to help your intake on top of good food sources like carrots, tomatoes, peppers, watercress, berries, grapes, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli and kale. It is also advisable to take an extra supplement of 500mg vitamin C before, during and after drinking.’
The antioxidant nutrients vitamins A, C and E and the minerals zinc and selenium are vital for liver function as well as protecting the body against this susceptibility.
‘Our livers protect themselves from alcohol damage by producing fatty deposits, which can hinder our very ability to detoxify it. Vitamin C and the herb milk thistle may help prevent these effects; milk thistle can be taken as a supplement 150-300mg alongside and many people report it is helpful for hangover prevention. It has a 2,000 year traditional history for liver, kidney and gallbladder health support. Most scientific studies show milk thistle improves liver function and increases survival in people with cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis from alcoholism, but more consistent and larger study numbers are needed to confirm.’
One of the most important rules of drinking is to make sure you’ve don’t do it on an empty stomach. ‘We need to slow down absorption via the stomach to both protect against the neurotoxic elements and to minimise that dramatic ‘suddenly wasted’ effect. Eating before drinking is key, especially with blood sugar balancing protein present as meat, fish, eggs, beans, goat’s cheese, nuts and seeds.
Eating before drinking is key, especially with blood sugar balancing protein present as meat, fish, eggs, beans, goat’s cheese, nuts and seeds.
‘Nuts and olives on bars are there to help people keep drinking as the fats present slow down alcohol release into the bloodstream and the saltiness keeps up thirst’ Charlotte tells us. ‘Drinking more slowly with a meal is how cultures with healthy attitudes to alcohol tend to include it as part of daily life and this supports health promoting ‘moderation’.’
And there are certain foods that can even help with a hangover. ‘Support of ‘phase two’ liver detoxification processes is key to minimise alcohol’s toxic effects and help the body metabolise it more efficiently. The mineral sulphur is needed for the liver detoxification pathway that disables alcohol. Sulphur is rich foods such as onions, garlic, fennel, asparagus, beans and cabbage. Raspberries, turmeric and green tea also optimise phase two liver clearance of alcohol. The B vitamins that alcohol depletes are also needed for alcohol clearance, so ironically less tolerance can be seen as we get older through reduced levels and less efficient liver clearance.’
The mineral sulphur is needed for the liver detoxification pathway that disables alcohol.
‘This is especially important for women as alcohol raises circulating oestrogen as is metabolised by the same liver pathway as alcohol, which as a toxic substance, the liver will prioritise breaking down to eliminate. This is part of its breast cancer risk factor and why it can exacerbate symptoms for those with PMS, fibroids, endometriosis and peri-menopausal hot flushes.’
‘Alcohol increases urination through lowered produced of anti-diuretic hormone, so dehydration – coconut water, broths with chicken, loads of celery and a sprinkle of good quality rock salt, organic cloudy apple juice and virgin bloody Mary help replace electrolyte minerals for healthy rehydration.
This can help energy levels and stop you turning to the coffee which can also increase urination in those susceptible. At the very least, drink water between drinks to quench thirst and you may find you simply drink less alcohol this way.’
Exactly why you want fry up the next day
‘Fry-ups provide dense sources of proteins, fats, B vitamins and zinc, even if the foods are often cooked in ways that also produce trans fats and lesser quality sausages and bacon contain preservatives and loads of salt.’ The best food for a hangover cure is one of a fry-ups main components. ‘Eggs are especially good as they contain high levels of cysteine, a sulphur “amino acid”, one of the building blocks of protein. They are an age-old hangover cure in many cultures for good reason.’
As well as affecting the body, alcohol can also have huge effects on our mood. ‘Alcohol – like any addicting substance – creates an immediate surge of the rewarding and motivating neurotransmitter (brain chemical) dopamine, so if we have turned to it for stress relief before, our brains learn that it will have this self-medicating effect again and set up a craving association response.’
Alcohol – like any addicting substance – creates an immediate surge of the rewarding and motivating neurotransmitter (brain chemical) dopamine
However, it can lead to a dangerous cycle where we become reliant on alcohol for a mood booster. ‘The same cycle happens with the neurotransmitter serotonin, which creates stimulation and euphoric mood immediately after a drink, but a significant drops occurs soon after, leaving us wanting to recreate that ‘high’ with the next drink or the association with needing alcohol to ‘have a good time’. This is especially true if we tend to low levels (with depressive tendencies or SAD) which also prompts sugar cravings as insulin (the hormone produced to transport sugar) takes the building blocks for serotonin into the brain.
It is therefore important for us to ensure we lead as happy lives as possible. ‘If we also don’t have enough ‘natural joy’ in our lives (laughter, hugs, comfort, support, socialisation, music, exercise) we may be more likely to turn to alcohol or other sugar sources to prop us up and this can become a long-term conditioned pattern and coping strategy.’
The problem with using alcohol to relax
Many people also use alcohol as a way to relax after a long stressful day and achieve a restful sleep. ‘For many, alcohol may seem essential for ‘switching off’. This is because its first response is to relax us by heightening the relaxing brain chemical GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), which literally shuts off brain chatter, a blessed relief for many. However, long-term, this can have disastrous effects. ‘Having alcohol to create this effect (rather than finding ways to relax without) becomes a cycle where the brain starts to need alcohol to pick up the GABA, and without it we can then become tense, anxious and unable to sleep. Using alcohol to help sleep is a false economy: the GABA rush does stupefy and relax us at first, but then lowered levels throughout the night can impair sleep and jolt us awake in the small hours.’
Using alcohol to help sleep is a false economy: the GABA rush does stupefy and relax us at first, but then lowered levels throughout the night can impair sleep and jolt us awake in the small hours.
So how do we escape this vicious cycle? ‘Reducing alcohol can create a phase where less GABA (and dopamine) is available to the brain and you may feel this agitation and inability to self-soothe, while your brain resensitizes to accessing its own stores. This can be difficult, especially for those who tend to depression and fatigue, but it’s crucial at this stage not to turn to other sugar sources to replace this effect and ‘normalize’. That simply replaces one addictive cycle with another. Women may also experience more alcohol cravings pre-menstrually, as will anyone during times of stress for soothing self-medication.’
Alcohol and your mood
Long-term, alcohol can have negative effects on our mood. ‘Alcohol intake, like stress itself increases release of dopamine and serotonin in the short-term, but ultimately the initial surge leads to a crash after and from there, tendencies to more ‘roller-coaster’ disordered release, rather than the more smooth and sustained production that allows regulated and consistent mood.’
Alcohol intake, like stress itself increases release of dopamine and serotonin in the short-term, but ultimately the initial surge leads to a crash
‘The resulting mood swings and even depressive and anxious tendencies are exacerbated by the B vitamin, zinc and other nutrient depletion that alcohol creates – all of these are vital for our neurochemistry and how we respond to stress or challenges in life. They are also necessary for energy production, interlinked with mood though motivation and as these become depleted, reliance on the quick-fix ‘up’ of alcohol increases.’
More from Charlotte Watts:
Stressed out? The secrets to dealing with it are in your BELLY – our blogger has 7 ways healing your gut can heal your head
5 office exercises to up your energy at work
10 ways to deal with stress and anxiety you’ve NEVER heard of
7 surprising signs you’re stressed
6 ways to have more energy through the day
Charlotte Watts is a nutritionist and yoga teacher whose work has focused on how nutrition and yoga can meet to help people cope with the demands we face in the 21st century. Her practice and teaching of mindfulness weaves these together and has culminated in her new book De-Stress Effect, The: Rebalance Your Body’s Systems For Vibrant Health And Happiness. She has also authored The De-Stress Diet (with Anna Magee) and 100 Best Foods for Pregnancyand100 Foods to Stay Young.