If you’re thinking about how alcohol fits with your life, Professor David Cameron-Smith, an expert in nutrition for optimal health, suggests you start by understanding exactly what alcohol does to your body.
“Alcohol (ethanol) is, in fact, a neural depressant and toxin,” he says. “It’s the most widely consumed one because, by some quirk of chemistry, a little bit has the opposite immediate effect and delivers short-term euphoria and a sense of relaxation.” This explains why just a single drink can turn the boring into the hilarious, or provide much-needed stress relief after a hard day in the office! But Cameron-Smith adds that just as the fun starts, unfortunately, the effects of alcohol tip the brain into a dangerous spiral. “Alcohol’s depressive effect works first on the inhibitory parts of the brain – the parts that would normally control your careful and cautious side. As many of us have learned the hard way, with just a few drinks, crazy things are said and done. … Alcohol’s inhibition of the cautious side of the brain can also lead to anger, violence and risk-taking behaviors.” The slurred speech, loss of physical control and impaired vision are simply the tell-tale signs that alcohol is taking full reign to suppress your neural pathways.
Alcohol is a neural depressant and toxin….but by some quirk of chemistry, a little bit has the opposite immediate effect and it delivers short-term euphoria and a sense of relaxation.
And it’s not just detrimental in the short term. The IARC classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen – that’s the same as asbestos and tobacco. It is cited as “a cause of female breast, colorectum, larynx, liver, esophagus, oral cavity, and pharynx cancers; and as a probable cause of pancreatic cancer. To top it off, a moderate alcohol intake is also shown to affect the brain, and not in a good way. In a long-term study, English researchers assessed the cognitive performance of 550 men and women over 30 years. They then used MRI scans of their brains to look at the size of the hippocampus – the seahorse-shaped area of the brain associated with memory. They found a number of indicators pointing to the negative impact of booze on the brain, including hippocampus shrinkage: 35 percent shrinkage on the right side of the hippocampus in abstainers; a 65 percent shrinkage among those who drank on average between 14 and 21 units a week; and 77 percent for those who drank 30 or more units a week. The team also found that white matter (the part of the brain that connects different areas of grey matter) was of poorer quality in people who were drinking more.
The health benefits of booze
Enough with the doom and gloom, what about all the headlines proclaiming “Drinking Alcohol Helps You Live Longer”? A large study published in 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology surveyed 333,000 people about their lifestyle habits and tracked them for an average of eight years. It found that light and moderate drinkers (14 or fewer drinks per week for men and seven or less for women) were about 20 percent less likely to die from any cause during the study’s follow-up period, compared to abstainers.
It does show that if you lead a brilliantly healthy lifestyle, a little bit of wine won’t kill you.
This is one of many studies suggesting that lifetime teetotallers might die earlier than light to moderate drinkers. Yet, despite plenty of evidence, the underlying reasons for this are unclear and the subject of ongoing scientific debate. This is because it’s hard to separate the benefits of moderate drinking from the other lifestyle factors.
In the past, the fact that French people have lower rates of heart disease than the US population has been pinned on their red wine intake (researchers identified modest amounts of alcohol could improve good cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol) levels). But a more likely explanation is that the French are typically thinner, fitter and more active.
When you consider this it’s hard to say alcohol improves health, but it does show that if you lead a brilliantly healthy lifestyle then a little bit of wine won’t kill you.
THE SCIENCE IN A NUTSHELL:
- Too much drinking brings risk of early death
- There’s no evidence abstaining will kill you
- There’s some evidence that light to moderate drinking might – might – have a protective effect on your heart
- But, the evidence is not clear enough to suggest you should start drinking for health reasons.
Should you avoid alcohol?
It’s fair to say that if you don’t drink, don’t start. You won’t miss any health benefits by not drinking. A few years ago, dance fitness legend Gandalf Archer Mills cut out alcohol and says it totally changed his life. “I started to sleep so much better, which felt amazing… I also started losing weight quite easily and found that, if I did gain a bit of weight I could get back to normal much faster.”
Of course, abstinence is not the only option. There are millions who happily and healthily enjoy alcohol – and you can too.
How to enjoy alcohol in a healthy way
First, drink consciously. Try not to mindlessly quaff through thirst or nervousness; drink water at the same time as your wine. Drinking every day can mean it’s pretty easy to overdo it, so think about having some alcohol-free days in your week. And don’t ‘save up’ and binge at the weekend. Binge drinking is associated with its own set of health risks, including injury.
When you do drink, try and keep it to three drinks or fewer in a session, and be aware a ‘standard’ drink is probably less than you think it is.
Finally, when you’re choosing your drink, go for healthy options and don’t be fooled by the marketing claims.
The healthiest alcohol options
Many people believe beer is high in sugar and carbs. In fact, beer does not contain much sugar – and it never has. A 330ml bottle of beer can contain as little as one gram or less of sugar.
Nor are carbs a huge issue in beer; most beers are relatively low in carbohydrate. Low-carb beers are a triumph of marketing over substance. A ‘75% fewer carbs’ beer I tried recently, for example, does indeed contain two grams of carbs versus eight grams in a standard beer. But this saves a negligible amount of calories: 27 calories or 113 kilojoules in a bottle. Hardly enough to shrink a beer belly.
Most wine, similarly, contains very little sugar – less than a teaspoon in a glass. Spirits are similar; it’s the mixers we have with these that add sugar to the drink.
It’s not the carbs or the sugar in beer, wine, whiskey – or any alcohol – that make us fat and causes us harm – and it has never been. It’s the alcohol. Alcohol has nearly twice the energy of sugar: one gram of alcohol provides 7 calories (29kJ) compared to one gram of sugar with 4 calories (17kJ).
With this in mind, you are far better off ignoring claims of low sugar or low carbs, and going for low-alcohol options.
TIPS FOR SMART DRINKING
- Avoid mindlessly sipping through thirst or nervousness
- Drink water at the same time as alcohol
- Have alcohol-free days
- Try not to binge drink – it opens up a whole new set of risks, including injury
- Keep it to three drinks or less each session
- Choose ‘low alcohol’ options over ‘low sugar’ ‘low carb’
- The bottom line: enjoy moderate drinking, with an emphasis on moderation.
Lastly, Professor Cameron-Smith advises that you be mindful of how alcohol impacts your exercise efforts. “When you exercise, the repair and re-synthesis processes take several hours to days. Alcohol’s dehydrating effects and its ability to impair liver function compromise our ability to replenish the stores of glycogen (sugar) needed for aerobic activity. Alcohol also directly interferes with the protein synthesis pathways in muscle, reducing the ability to repair and rebuild muscles after exercise.
He also busts the myth that you can exercise away a hangover. “A workout might make us feel virtuous after a night of excess, but in reality, it's not a good idea to exercise with a hangover. Even modest dehydration will compromise performance and mental judgment, and will impair the ability to exercise or compete. At the same time, the circulating levels of the toxin acetaldehyde make it difficult for the liver to control blood sugar levels. So, no amount of post-binge exercise is going to undo the damage from the night before.