Alcohol is a staple in our culture: 86.8 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70.7 percent reported that they drank in the past year; 56.4 percent reported that they drank in the past month (source). More than half of all Americans aged 12 or older report that they are current drinkers. In the latest national survey, 51.9% (or an estimate 130.6 million people), of those surveyed said they were current drinkers. (source) That means you’re in the minority if you don’t drink.
Numerous studies indicate that moderate drinking may have health benefits. We’ve heard it may lower cardiovascular disease risk and even lengthen your life span, keeping at 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women. Alcohol is a fermented beverage, and we know that fermented foods and drinks have many health benefits and are a source of beneficial probiotics and enzymes.
But the dose makes the poison here. For all its health benefits, booze comes with a long list of negatives. Furthermore, is any dose really safe?
The active ingredient in booze is ethanol. It directly influences the stomach, brain, heart, gallbladder, and liver. It affects levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and insulin in the blood and alters inflammation (positively and negatively) and coagulation. And obviously it alters mood, focus, coordination, and clouds judgement. While most people drink moderately, some don’t, and used in excess, alcohol can cause heart damage, high blood pressure, cancer (especially breast cancer), and liver issues. 18.2 million Americans meet standard criteria for alcohol abuse or alcoholism. (source)
Do the risks outweigh the benefits?
First off, frequency of use matters: if you save up all your binge drinking for the weekend, alcohol will not have a beneficial effect for you; in fact, binge drinking has serious deleterious effects on heart, liver, and kidneys. To get any health benefits from alcohol, you must stay within the guidelines and limits. But even then, is it worth it?
My answer is no, and it’s not because I’m a consistent teetotaler; in fact, I used to struggle with binge drinking myself, so I’ve been on both sides of the fence. We now know that alcohol causes seven forms of cancer, and people consuming even low to moderate amounts are at risk, according to new studies. There is now enough credible evidence to say conclusively that drinking is a direct cause of cancer of the oropharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast. You can read the study here. Read how alcohol causes cancer here.
My opinion is that there is a very narrow portion of the population that can get away with reaping any benefits from booze, and even these benefits change over time. In general, risks exceed benefits until middle age, when cardiovascular disease begins to account for an increasingly large share of the burden of disease and death. (source) Men fare better than women; women metabolize alcohol differently and have more sensitive endocrine systems that are adversely affected by booze.
You are probably ok consuming alcohol if:
- you do not exceed the recommended serving size in a sitting
- you don’t drink every day or even regularly
- you don’t have health problems, blood sugar regulation issues/hypoglycemia, or sleep disturbances
- you don’t feel crappy or have sugar cravings the following day
Is Alcohol Negatively Affecting Your Health?
Here is who should not drink:
- pregnant women
- recovering alcoholics
- people with liver disease or fatty liver
- people with high risk factors for breast cancer
- people taking certain meds that interact with alcohol
- people struggling with anxiety and depression
- once you start, you can’t stop
For everyone else, the waters are less clear. If you can’t go without your wine; if you’re having trouble with weight loss or sleep; if you have high (over 140) LDL cholesterol levels and/or high triglycerides (over 150); cravings; or if you can’t stop once you start, I recommend taking a break from the booze and seeing if your health improves. Alcohol is a habit, and a bad one at that. If you can’t fathom giving up your nightly wine, take a look at the control alcohol has over you. I highly recommend this book to shed some light on the topic.
Your genes play a huge role here: if you have alcoholism in your family, you are more likely to experience alcoholism yourself, even if you start out moderately. If you have issues with hypoglycemia, sugar metabolism, and/or low neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA), you may be more likely to binge drink and abuse alcohol because it acts as a quick sugar hit and releases serotonin in the brain, making you feel good and increasing the likelihood of binge drinking. Ideally these folks would avoid alcohol or wouldn’t even start, because they are also more likely to experience negative effects from even moderate drinking: increased insulin and blood sugar, anxiety, depression. If you start drinking and can’t stop, you probably shouldn’t drink either since you’re likely binge drinking when you do so.
Here is why you shouldn’t drink:
- Alcohol is a direct cause of cancer.
- Alcohol is a poison and a stress on your system. Yes, certain types of wine contain high levels of resveratrol, a potent disease fighting antioxidant, but it’s possible to get such benefits from other foods.
- As a poison, alcohol must be broken down and detoxified by the liver. If your liver is already congested and overworked, this sets you up for a possibility of hormone imbalance (especially estrogen dominance, as alcohol increases estrogens, a risk for hormonal cancers).
- Alcohol– even a serving– negatively affects sleep due to its impact on blood sugar balance and the liver’s active detox period at night. You may notice your sleep disrupted on the nights you drink, and really, who wants that?
- Alcohol basically acts like liquid sugar in the body, causing increased levels of insulin, the fat storage hormone. Yes, booze makes you fat.
- Alcohol is dehydrating (read: skin sagging. Aging! Wrinkles!)
- Alcohol can cause numerous vitamin/mineral deficiencies, especially B vitamins.
- Alcohol promotes aging and oxidation. It’s making the bags under your eyes worse because it’s stressing your lymphatic system and affecting your sleep.
- It may raise your triglycerides and cholesterol and contribute to inflammation with overuse.
- Alcohol especially impacts women. Read 13 things you should know about women and alcohol.
Sorry to ruin the party, folks. Alcohol’s negative effects outweigh the positives, and it’s possible to get the same benefits via less harmful means. If you drink on celebratory occasions a few times a year, you’re probably fine. But if you can’t go without your nightly wine, it may be time to think about the consequences.
Women are especially vulnerable to alcohol’s deleterious effects: Today, women buy nearly 2/3 of the 784 million gallons of the wine sold in this country, and they drink 70% of what they buy (source). Women metabolize alcohol different than men: They absorb more alcohol, it takes longer to break it down exit the body. When drinking equal amounts, women will have higher alcohol levels in their blood than men. Alcohol raises estrogen levels, making women more vulnerable to estrogen dominance and hormone imbalances, and this is likely one reason drinking increases breast cancer risk.
So, why do we use alcohol in the first place? To relax, alter our thinking, escape? At the very worst, to avoid facing issues we don’t want to face, to forget about a bad day, to forget about ourselves? Drinking to excess to numb the bad feelings, the voices we can’t escape, the bad self esteem? What if we had the tools to do this otherwise, in a way that’s not potentially harmful to the body?
I recommend using meditation as a means to relax and center yourself. I still struggle with my meditation practice, but when I practice it daily as I should, I notice profound effects.
I know first hand how hard it is to quit the booze habit. I was the typical example of someone who enjoyed wine several times weekly (typically in excess) to relax and forget about pressure. It’s hard to say goodbye to that, but instead of white knuckling my way through it, I thought about everything I was gaining: no hangovers, no anxiety, no increased disease risk, no shitty sleep, and the biggest one of all (sorry), looking much better!
There are many online resources out there to help you. My dear friend and colleague Holly has an entire program dedicated to helping people overcome binge drinking. Also check out Laura McKowen’s The Luckiest Club.
The bottom line is this: if you don’t drink, don’t start. If you fit the criteria for those who are ok drinking, you’re probably fine occasionally (once a month maybe). But if you’re not sure if your drinking is problematic, or if it’s affecting your sleep, causing you anxiety, or otherwise negatively impacting your health, I’d encourage you to ask yourself the hard questions about how you can leave it behind for good. Listen to your body. Click here for some healthy beverage alternatives.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.