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Can alcohol really be healthy?

by Adam Gould
Can alcohol really be healthy?

These days it’s no secret heavy drinking is bad for your health. We’ve all heard the advice about avoiding binge drinking and having a few alcohol-free days a week. But it’s not always easy to be well behaved.

The festive season isn’t far away now, and whilst around 20% of adults in the UK never drink alcohol - let's face it; lots of us are probably going to drink more than we know we should.

Unfortunately, whilst it's a significant element of our social culture, the negative facts about the health implications of alcohol remain:

  • Drinking too much can damage your liver, pancreas, brain, heart and weaken your immune system.
  • It can increase your risk for several types of cancer.
  • Boozing can give you a beer belly and make your skin puffy/flushed.
  • It affects your brain chemistry and your mental health
  • It can reduce your fertility, whether you’re male or female

And if that wasn’t enough; we all know drinking heavily makes you much more likely to indulge in other harmful behaviours such as eating too much, smoking, and sometimes even plunging headfirst into ill-advised romantic encounters you wouldn’t even contemplate when you’re sober (admit it, we’ve all been there).

Yet despite the harms of alcohol being common knowledge, many of us have no intention of going alcohol-free – or even cutting down significantly – any time soon. So while we could harp on about the many different ways drinking can harm your wellbeing; instead, here’s some information that might help you to drink more safely (and boost recovery should you have the odd slip-up).

Did you know?  Alcohol induced bad behaviour isn't just down to the sudden release of inhibitions revealing your true desires. Ethanol stimulates the primitive part of your brain called the hypothalamus, which regulates basic human functions such as, appetite and sex drive. Too much alcohol however, can have adverse effects on libido – especially for men.


Choose your poison

We’ve all heard sayings like ‘beer before wine and you’ll feel fine’. But does what you drink matter when it comes to your health?

Experts are still locked in debate over whether drinking moderate or small amounts of alcohol can be good for you. There is, for instance, evidence that moderate drinking could benefit your heart as it improves your cholesterol profile by slowing HDL (‘good’) cholesterol decline in your blood. However the same study found people who never drank had lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol than the drinkers, so it's hardly conclusive.

Whilst there are plenty of other researchers who think no amount of alcohol is the only healthy option.

But does it come down to what you drink? Red wine, for instance, is often considered the healthiest drink, thanks to its high antioxidant content. Small amounts of red wine have indeed been linked to more health benefits than any other alcoholic drink, with studies linking it to a reduced risk of:

But most of the benefits come from the grapes rather than the alcohol component (ethanol). In fact it’s the ethanol in red wine and every other alcoholic drink you’ve got to watch out for.

Ethanol is a small, water- and fat-soluble molecule, which means it can permeate every tissue in your body, causing all sorts of problems if you expose your organs to too much of it. So when it comes to the harm alcohol can do, it really doesn’t matter what you drink – the effect is the same whether your tipple is red wine, white wine, spirits, cocktails or beer.

Clearly, however, drinking small amounts of red wine does seem to have some wellness benefits. But before you use your health as a worthy excuse to uncork another bottle, it's worth mentioning that there's literally hundreds of non-alcoholic drinks, foods and supplements that are high in antioxidants, have superior nutritional profiles and are packed with beneficial phytochemical content. Including red grapes.

Did you know?   It takes your body around one hour to process a single unit of alcohol. So if you drink 5/6 glasses of wine (1 bottle), you'll feel the effects for approximately 5/6 hours.


Know your limits

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a healthy drink, but if you want to keep the health risks as low as possible, the best way is to stick to the 14 units of alcohol a week (same for men and women) advised by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers.

Although drinking trends differ wildly depending on age, gender and location - the average consumption per adult in the UK is around 18 units a week... so there must be a fair few people over-doing it.

But what do 14 units of alcohol actually look like?

  • 6 pints of beer (4%) or 175ml glasses of wine (13%)
  • 4 pints of cider or standard lager (4.5%)
  • 3 single shots of spirits (35-40%) or 275ml alcopops (4%) 
  • 2 small bottles of export lager (5%), 175ml glasses of wine (13%), or 125ml glasses of champagne (12%)

If there is a healthy way to drink; sticking to these limits is it. Discover more combinations by using Drinkaware’s unit calculator.


Liver another day

When it comes to processing alcohol, your liver does all the hard work - breaking down 90 per cent of all the ethanol in your system. It converts it into acetic acid, which in-turn breaks down into harmless substances such as carbon dioxide. Push it too hard, too often, however, and it will give up the ghost and start dying off cell by cell - potentially increasing the risk of serious conditions such as cirrhosis, fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and other liver diseases.

If you’ve been drinking more than you should lately, there’s good news, at least for your liver. Generally speaking, alcohol-induced liver damage takes years of excessive drinking. So as long as you start drinking more moderately, it’s unlikely you’ll have done any irreparable damage. In fact you shouldn’t experience anything worse than a hangover if you go over the top once or twice on holiday or over Christmas

Did you know?   The liver is your body's only regenerative organ. Even if you had 75% of it removed, it could still grow back to it's full-size - like a lizards tail! There's no quick fix, but the best way to encourage liver healing is stop drinking alcohol, drink lots of water, eat healthily and do plenty of exercise. 


The morning after...

Long term implications aside, hangovers are a more immediate side-effect that can be pretty awful. That’s because alcohol makes you dehydrated, plus it messes with your electrolyte levels, makes your blood sugar plummet and irritates your intestines.

Unfortunately there's nothing that can speed-up the recovery process, but there are a few ways you can soothe that pounding head, nausea, dizziness and feeling of running on empty:

Water, water, water   Alcohol increases the amount of urine you produce, which explains why you have to pee so much when you drink. So the morning after you can be dehydrated, which can make you feel really rough. The answer? Drink a sip of water every few minutes to keep your hydration levels up (add some OJ to your water or have a sports drink or a glass of coconut water, if you can stomach it, to get your electrolytes back to normal too).

Ginger tea    Ginger helps with nausea and can settle your stomach. Chop a small piece and add boiling water, steep for five minutes then add honey to taste.

Dry Bread    Eating bland foods like toast and crackers can be a good way to raise your blood sugar without irritating your stomach.

Marmite   If you need something to put on your toast, Marmite can help replace the B vitamins you lose when you drink, plus give you a bit of an energy boost.

Fried egg sandwich   Marmite isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if you’re a hater try having a fried egg sandwich (a full English may be traditional but it’s not for the faint-hearted). Eggs are a good source of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), which helps your body produce glutathione, a substance that helps clear out alcohol toxins.

Go back to bed   Unless you have to get up for work or the school run, stay under the duvet or take a nap later in the day. The more sleep you get, the milder your hangover symptoms will be.

Hair of the dog   No, we’re not really recommending this one. Having another drink will just delay the inevitable hangover. Plus your dog won’t like it.

Vitamins   There's a ton of traditional and commercial remedies for curing hangovers out there, some of which make a degree of sense and many of which do not... but there are definitely certain nutrients that could really make a difference to how you feel the next day.

The main vitamins depleted by alcohol consumption are the B vitamins, particularly B1, B2, B3 and B6, which are crucial for all sorts of body processes - hence trying to replace them as quickly as possible is the best route to improving your situation.

Vitamin C and Vitamin E are notable for their strong antioxidant properties, particularly when taken together, which according to scientific understanding should be beneficial for neutralising free-radicals before they cause damage to body cells - however clinical evidence of this is very thin on the ground.

Electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride and calcium are also required for a number of brain and body functions - and are lost through urinating, sweating and when combating toxins in the body. No surprise then, that drinking alcohol in sufficient amounts can seriously deplete their levels and cause an imbalance. 

Replacing these mighty minerals as soon as possible should help you feel better and increase energy levels and brain focus the next day, as well as reducing the strain on your kidneys as they struggle to do their job of regulating hydration levels without these crucial raw materials they need to work efficiently.

Did you know?   Experts think many hangover symptoms are caused by the body’s reaction to alcohol impurities called congeners, with red wine and dark spirits containing more congeners than white wines and white spirits. This could explain why drinks like brandy have a reputation for giving you a thumping whilst clear spirits such as vodka are thought to be hangover-free.


Monkey business

For some people, sticking to recommended drinking levels is a real struggle. On the other hand others can take alcohol or leave it. So are some of us born to booze and others natural abstainers?

Most experts believe that how much an individual wants to drink, and their tendency towards alcohol addiction, could have more to do with genes than social environment or learned behaviours.

A few years ago a group of vervet monkeys in the Caribbean were observed after being introduced to alcohol in the shape of a nearby holiday resort from which they could pinch a variety of cocktails and spirits. The researchers found some interesting parallels with common human behaviour:

  • 65 per cent of them – the largest group – only drank alcohol when they were with other monkeys
  • 15 per cent were regular drinkers
  • 5 per cent were binge drinkers
  • 15 per cent – drank little to no alcohol.

Interestingly these statistics are very similar to those observed in studies of drinking habits in adult humans.

Perhaps this suggests that, like our close evolutionary relatives, we don’t have as much control over our drinking habits as we’d like to think. So if you’re having a battle with cutting back on the booze as much as you'd like, don’t beat yourself up too much. Depending on your genetic make-up you may already be doing better than you think.


Everything in moderation

As with so many other aspects of life, when it comes to drinking moderation really is key. So whatever your tipple, limiting yourself to the equivalent of one or two units of alcohol a day is the best strategy where your health is concerned.

But if you do find yourself overindulging from time to time, there are ways to recover faster. And by eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet you could argue you’re helping to protect yourself against some of the long-term impacts of regular drinking – though even the best diet can’t prevent the damage excessive, chronic alcohol consumption can do, particularly to your liver.

by Adam Gould
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