According to the latest statistics, 57 percent of Americans drink alcohol at least once a month. Alcohol consumption is a controversial issue. Some studies suggest “moderate” consumption is harmless; others propose it may even have some health benefits.
For instance, research shows people who have one to two drinks a day may have a significantly reduced risk of death from heart disease and “all causes” compared to those who never drink alcohol.
The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans also notes that “moderate consumption of alcohol [is a component] of a beneficial dietary pattern in most studies.” That said, “moderation” can be a moving target, depending on your age, height, weight, gender, health status, emotional state and more.
And, while some studies show benefits, others show alcohol consumption increases your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer — even at moderate intake levels. Moreover, when compared to other recreational drugs, such as tobacco and marijuana, alcohol is the deadliest.
In the Big Scheme of Things, Less Alcohol Is Better
I generally define “moderate” alcohol intake (which is allowed in the beginner phase of my nutrition plan) as a 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer or 1 ounce of hard liquor, with a meal, per day.
As you progress further in the nutrition plan, I recommend eliminating all forms of alcohol. Even if it provides some benefit, it’s unlikely that alcohol will add much to an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle.
That said, if you’re currently a drinker — whether your consumption is moderate or you tend to overdo it — research suggests exercise can go a long way toward mitigating the health risks, including reducing your risk for heart disease.
This makes sense when you consider the fact that exercise may be one of the most effective strategies for protecting and strengthening your heart. So much so, research shows regular exercise can significantly lower your health care costs if you have heart disease.
In one study, 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, five times per week, resulted in annual health care savings of more than $2,500 per person.
Acute Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, which slows down the communication between your brain cells. Your limbic system, which controls emotions, is also affected. This is why alcohol consumption lowers your inhibitions.
Your prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with reasoning and judgment, also slows in response to alcohol, leading to more impulsive behavior and poor judgment. At higher doses, your cerebellum, which plays a role in muscle activity, will also be impacted, leading to dizziness and loss of balance.
High doses can also result in alcohol poisoning, which can shut down areas of your brain that control basic life-support functions like breathing and heart rate, leading to death. Women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning, in part because they have lower percentage of water in their bodies than men.
Women also have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme designed to break down alcohol. Women can get themselves into serious trouble if they consume four or more drinks in a two-hour period; men if they consume more than five. Telltale signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Loss of coordination
- Cold, clammy hands and bluish skin due to hypothermia
- Vomiting repeatedly and/or uncontrollably
- Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths)
- Confusion, unconsciousness, stupor (conscious but unresponsive) and sometimes coma
- Long-Term Ramifications of Chronic Alcohol Consumption
In the long-term, alcohol consumption promotes weight gain and fatty liver disease. As with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) — which can occur in people who are overweight or obese even if they consume little or no alcohol, thanks to the similarities between fructose and alcohol metabolism — the problem can be reversed by making the appropriate lifestyle changes.
If your fatty liver disease is related to alcohol consumption, cutting out alcohol will be part of your treatment program. In addition, you’ll want to limit your total fructose consumption to less than 15 grams per day (same as those with NAFLD).
Fructose is actually, in many ways, very similar to alcohol in the damage that it can do to your body — and your liver. Eating right and exercising can often prevent this condition and may even reverse it in its early stages, in part because it encourages weight loss.
In one study, patients who had advanced fatty liver disease who followed a diet and exercise program for one year reported significant benefits; 90 percent of those who lost 10 percent or more of their body weight resolved their condition while 45 percent had regression of fibrosis (scarring).
Chronic alcohol consumption also disrupts your gut microbes, which can have a significant impact on your physical health and mental well-being. It’s well known that altering the balance of bacteria in your digestive tract can weaken your immune system, making you more prone to inflammation and disease. So when considering the decision to drink alcohol on a regular basis, consider not only your liver health but also the risk to your microbiome.
Exercise May Mitigate Risks of Alcohol Consumption
Exercise is a foundational aspect of good health, but may be even more important if you drink alcohol on a regular basis. According to recent research, chronic drinkers who exercise five hours a week have the same rate of mortality as those who never drink alcohol, in large part by counteracting the inflammation caused by alcohol.
The study looked at data from 36,370 British and Scottish adults — 85 percent of whom drank “occasionally” or “often.” Thirteen percent of them were heavy drinkers, consuming 14 or more units of alcohol per week.
Interestingly, those who got at least 2.5 hours a week of moderately intense exercise significantly reduced the biological impact of their drinking. Those who exercised for five hours a week had the same mortality risk as teetotalers, even if they were heavy drinkers. The only ones who could not cancel out the harms of their alcohol consumption were those who drank dangerous levels of alcohol each week (20 or more standard drinks for women and 28 or more for men). As reported by The Daily Mail
“[The study concluded:] ‘Our results provide an additional argument for the role of physical activity as a means to promote the health of the population even in the presence of other less healthy behaviors.’ Professor Matt Field, from the U.K. Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Liverpool said: ‘This is a rigorous piece of research with some clear conclusions.
The relationship between drinking alcohol to excess and increased risk of death is significantly weaker in people who are physically active. Therefore, it appears that physical activity may partially offset some of the harmful effects of drinking, particularly alcohol-attributable cancers.'”
Exercise Also Protects Your Brain, and Diminishes Risk of Alcohol Abuse
Previous research has also found that long-time drinkers who exercise regularly have less damaged white matter in their brains compared to those who rarely or never exercise. The white matter is considered the “wiring” of your brain’s communication system, and is known to decline in quality with age and heavy alcohol consumption.
In addition to helping protect your brain, if you know you’re prone to alcohol abuse or have a family history of alcohol addiction, exercising regularly can also reduce your risk of becoming dependent. The cravings for alcohol can become all-consuming, and eventually an alcoholic does not feel “normal” until they’ve had a drink. The alcohol abuse inevitably throws off your circadian rhythm — the normal times you eat, sleep and wake up — as well, leading to a downward spiral of health and emotional effects.
Drinking alcohol chemically alters your brain to release dopamine, a chemical your brain associates with rewarding behaviors. Exercise also triggers the release of dopamine, along with other feel-good chemicals, which means you can get the same “buzz” from working out that you can get from a six-pack of beer, but with far better outcomes for your health.
Exercise is also beneficial for those who are already addicted, and may actually help to lessen cravings. In one study,15 hamsters that ran the most consumed less alcohol, while less active hamsters had greater cravings for and consumption of alcohol. By replacing drinking with exercise, you may find that the rewarding feeling you get from exercise provides you with a suitable alternative to the rewarding feeling you previously got from alcohol.
Helpful Protocol to Minimize Damage of Alcohol
While I don’t recommend drinking alcohol, if you know you’ll be having a few drinks, taking this natural protocol beforehand can help “pre-tox” your body, thereby minimizing the damage associated with alcohol consumption. Just beware that this protocol will NOT make you less susceptible to alcohol poisoning or other acute adverse events associated with binge drinking, so please use common sense and drink responsibly.
1. N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): NAC is a form of the amino acid cysteine. It is known to help increase glutathione and reduce acetaldehyde toxicity that causes many hangover symptoms. Try taking NAC (at least 200 milligrams) 30 minutes before you drink to help lessen the alcohol’s toxic effects.
If you’re wondering just how powerful NAC can be, consider that, like alcohol, one way that Tylenol causes damage to your liver is by depleting glutathione. If you keep your glutathione levels up, the damage from the acetaminophen may be largely preventable. This is why anyone who overdoses on Tylenol receives large doses of NAC in the emergency room — to increase glutathione.
2. B Vitamins: NAC is thought to work even better when combined with vitamin B1 (thiamine). Vitamin B6 may also help to lessen hangover symptoms. Since alcohol depletes B vitamin in your body, and the B vitamins are required to help eliminate alcohol from your body, a B vitamin supplement taken beforehand, as well as the next day, may help.
3. Milk Thistle: Milk thistle contains silymarin and silybin, antioxidants known to help protect your liver from toxins, including the effects of alcohol. Not only has silymarin been found to increase glutathione, but it also may help to regenerate liver cells. A milk thistle supplement may be most useful when taken regularly, especially if you know you’ll be having cocktails on more than one occasion.
4. Vitamin C: Alcohol may deplete your body of vitamin C, which is important for reducing alcohol-induced oxidative stress in your liver. Interestingly, one animal study showed vitamin C was even more protective to the liver than silymarin (milk thistle) after exposure to alcohol.
Making sure you’re getting enough vitamin C, either via supplements or food, is another trick to use prior to indulging in alcoholic beverages. Vitamin C is actually such a powerful detoxifier that if you take large doses prior to receiving dental anesthesia, the anesthesia will be significantly weakened and may not work.
5. Magnesium: Magnesium is another nutrient depleted by alcohol, and it’s one that many are already deficient in. Plus, magnesium has anti-inflammatory properties that may help to reduce some hangover symptoms. If you don’t eat a lot of magnesium-rich foods, taking a magnesium supplement before an evening involving drinking may be helpful.
Chronic Alcohol Use Diminishes Your Fitness
While it’s certainly good to know you can mitigate the effects of alcohol by exercising more, I would be remiss were I not to mention that chronic alcohol consumption tends to impede your fitness goals.
Not only are you less inclined to exercise if you don’t feel well from the night before, but alcohol also contributes to dehydration and weight gain, and in higher doses can affect testosterone production, muscle protein synthesis and leucine oxidation, thereby reducing your chances of improving your fitness and building muscle mass.
So, as long as you continue drinking, your exercise merely ends up serving as a stop-gap of sorts, to prevent more serious health problems from developing. And, if you’re making all that effort, wouldn’t it make more sense to maximize your payout by cutting out the booze?
By Dr. Mercola