I debated about writing on this topic, because I know there are many people who enjoy this substance, so I am here to apologize ahead of time for being the bearer of bad news.
This information I am about to present is about drinking alcohol and its effects on your brain, gut, mood, inflammation, DNA and hormones. It unfortunately applies to all drinkers including, and especially, those who may be mild to moderate regular drinkers (1-2 drinks per day).
This is quite frankly, information that cannot be ignored. While the research has been available for quite a while, it has been ignored, swept under the rug, or considered to be applicable only for those who participate in heavy usage of alcohol. Not true. If you drink on any kind of regular basis, this information applies to you, and you deserve to know about something that has such strong negative associations with your health.
Alcohol is a huge cultural and social institution. Most all holidays, year ‘round, revolve around drinking alcohol. Social gatherings including weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations often center around alcohol usage. Then there’s football, baseball, and other spectator sports. What would the Super Bowl be without beer? And don’t forget daily Happy Hour.
In 2021, the global market share of the alcohol industry amounted to around 1.45 trillion dollars. This is an increase of 72 billion dollars over 2019. This is BIG money, and I suspect the reason most people don’t hear about alcohol’s dangers has a lot do with this huge trillion-dollar industry and how they control the negative information surrounding alcohol.
Drinking alcohol is as dangerous or more dangerous than smoking cigarettes, even in small amounts. In fact, some studies have compared 10g of alcohol a day (that’s one small glass of wine, 1 shot of liquor, or a beer) to smoking a half a pack or more of cigarettes a week.
Even worse, over 10% of respondents wrongly believe that drinking alcohol, especially wine, is good for you. Yes, red wine does contain resveratrol, a natural antioxidant that slows aging. Unfortunately for you wine drinkers, the amount of resveratrol in wine is low.
Resveratrol concentrations in wine can range from negligible to around 2 milligrams per liter (for Pinot Noir which has the highest levels of resveratrol). This means you’d would have to get in about 1000 milligrams per day to receive any health benefits it offers.
To put these figures into perspective, you’d have to consume more than 500 liters, which equates to about 650 bottles of wine, per day. I don’t think 600 bottles of anything a day will do you much good, especially 600 bottles of wine.
What Happens in Your Body When You Drink Alcohol
Alcohol is a water- and fat-soluble substance, which means it can penetrate all organs and tissues, except bone and fat–and it’s damaging effects cross the blood brain barrier to cause damage to brain cells as well.
There are three primary types of alcohol, according to chemistry: isopropyl, methyl, and ethyl. All are toxic, but only ethyl, or grain, alcohol can be consumed by humans. However, ethyl alcohol is still very toxic to the body, and it causes substantial stress and damage to your cells.
When you drink alcohol, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and travels to your liver, where it is metabolized. The main enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol in the liver is called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH).
Alcohol dehydrogenase converts ethanol into acetaldehyde, a toxin, which is then further metabolized into acetic acid or acetone. Acetic acid is then broken down into water and carbon dioxide, which can be eliminated from the body through urine, breath and sweat.
The liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, and this varies from person to person. Generally, the liver can process about one drink per hour. If a person drinks faster than one drink per hour, the liver cannot speed up the detoxification process. Women metabolize alcohol slower than men, and older adults metabolize alcohol slower than younger adults.
Unmetabolized alcohol will circulate in the bloodstream, in the form of acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is the ‘poison’ part of alcohol, and the tipsy buzz you are feeling is actually the poison circulating in your bloodstream and your brain. In addition to making you feel tipsy, this poison is invading your cells and doing major damage to them.
1. Alcohol and Increased Cancer Risk
There is strong evidence to suggest that even mild to moderate alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of certain types of cancer. The World Health Organization has classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it is a known direct cause of cancer in humans. Alcohol use is one of the most important preventable risk factors for cancer, along with tobacco use and excess body weight, according to the American Cancer Society.
Contrary to what most folks believe however, you don’t have to be a raging alcoholic to experience the damage that alcohol does to your body and your cells. It only takes one or two drinks a day, and the risk of increases as consumption increases.
Cancer and alcohol consumption have been studied extensively, with the following types of cancers most strongly associated with alcohol consumption:
- Breast cancer
- Mouth, throat, and laryngeal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Liver cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Skin cancer
Let’s take a look how alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. Breast cancer increases by about 8-15%, per drink (10g alcohol) per day—for both pre-menopausal and menopausal women. That’s the equivalent of one glass of wine, 1 12oz. beer, or 1 shot of liquor. So, if you drink two glasses of wine per day, your risk of breast cancer goes up by 16-30%. There’s a similar increased risk for other types cancer as well. That’s pretty sobering if you ask me (no pun intended).
One of the ways alcohol increases cancer risk is by increasing inflammation. Cancer often follows inflammation. Alcohol consumption increases inflammatory markers in the body, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and increases levels of circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines, all of which can contribute to the development of health problem, including cancer.
There are several ways in which alcohol increases inflammation in the body:
- Alcohol damages the lining of the entire gut and gastrointestinal tract, leading to an increase in immune cell activity and widespread inflammation in the body.
- Alcohol stimulates the production of cortisol, adrenaline, and estrogen, which can promote inflammation that encourages cancer cell and tumor growth.
- Alcohol interferes with absorption and metabolism of nutrients that are important for healthy immune function, such as vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc. An effective immune system can fight and kill cancer cells.
- Alcohol increases oxidative stress and free radicals, both of which cause inflammation and cell damage.
- Most alcohol is high in sugar content, which further encourages cancer growth, as many different types of cancer feed on glucose.
The primary reason alcohol increases cancer risk is that it damages DNA in cells. DNA is the blueprint for healthy cell reproduction, and when this blueprint is damaged, the cells mutate and become cancer cells. Cancerous cells multiply into cancerous tumors, and then metastasize easily due to the high levels of inflammation and lowered immune response.
2. Alcohol and Mood Regulation
Alcohol hits your brain within about 5 minutes of ingesting it affects your brain function in about 10 minutes. This early stage is called subliminal intoxication. Reaction times, behavior and judgement are already impaired at this point. Just one drink suppresses the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for impulse control and inhibition.
Early stages of drinking also spike the neurochemicals, dopamine and serotonin. This is why most people enjoy drinking. They feel relaxed, confident, and often a little giddy. Subsequent drinks cannot restore these feelings that result from the increased dopamine and serotonin. The toxic effects of alcohol disrupt the brain circuitry so that after the initial spike in dopamine and serotonin, these neurochemicals take a long slow downhill route, resulting in a more depressed mood overall.
The problem comes when people seek more of the dopamine buzz. The more people drink to get those good feelings back, the more fleeting that feeling becomes. This can cause many people to become addicted to alcohol and dopamine spike, however short-lived it may be. Sadly, chronic drinkers often have persistent anxiety and depression from the alcohol.
3. Alcohol Shrinks Brain Matter
Studies show alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter in the brain. Although nearly 90% of the brain shows significant negative associations with alcohol intake, the most extensively affected regions included the frontal, parietal, and insular cortices, with changes also in temporal and cingulate regions. Associations are also marked in the brain stem, putamen, and amygdala.
This research showing shrinking gray and white matter of the brain holds true for younger adults as well as middle aged, and older adults.
Alcohol also changes the relationship between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenals, and the hormones they secrete.
The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands are all part of the endocrine system. The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain that produces hormones and neurotransmitters that control the pituitary gland, which is a small gland located at the base of the brain.
The pituitary gland, in turn, produces hormones that regulate various functions in the body, including growth, metabolism, and reproduction.
Alcohol affects this relationship between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands by disrupting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which can affect various body functions.
Alcohol increases production of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which increases feelings of stress and anxiety.
Alcohol also impairs the body’s ability to respond appropriately to the heightened stress.
In effect, regular alcohol consumption increases baseline levels of cortisol, leading you to feel more stressed and anxious, even when not drinking. This often leads a person to feel like they ‘need’ a drink after a stressful—or not so stressful day.
Although elevated baseline levels of cortisol can reverse after cessation of drinking, the problem persists quite a while after alcohol consumption.
Drinking alcohol makes you less resilient to everyday stressors, even when not drinking, and that increases your desire to drink more frequently.
4. Alcohol and Chronic Gut Inflammation
Rubbing alcohol is considered an antiseptic. The same goes for ethyl alcohol. Antiseptics kill bacteria, both good and bad. This also happens when someone drinks alcohol—it kills off the beneficial bacteria in the gut, and only a small amount of alcohol can cause damage.
Alcohol induces gut inflammation, which in turn promotes disease, both inside and outside the GI tract. In fact, many alcohol-related disorders, including cancers, liver disease, and neurological diseases, may be directly affected by the alcohol-induced gut inflammation.
The inflammation itself results from alcohol metabolism, that leads to leaky gut syndrome and increased system-wide inflammation, ‘bad’ bacterial and fungal overgrowth, imbalances in good and bad microorganisms in the gut, and alterations in immune function. Leaky gut can also cause food sensitivities and allergic reactions as protein molecules from food escape the gut and get into the bloodstream, where the immune system attacks them.
Along with the gut inflammation and gut dysbiosis, alcohol increases the risk of GERD, or esophageal reflux, which then often leads to esophageal cancer. Alcohol use can also cause gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach. Repeated episodes of gastritis open the door to ulcers and stomach cancer.
Gut inflammation often causes nutrients to be poorly absorbed and metabolized, leading to many nutrient deficiencies and decreased immune function. Some of the nutrients affected by alcohol include:
- Vitamin A, important for vision, immune function, and skin health.
- Vitamin B1 (thiamin), important for nerve function and energy production.
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) necessary for brain function, immune function, and metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates.
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamin), important for nerve function and the production of red blood cells.
- Folate helps produce red blood cells and promotes DNA synthesis. Because of its role in DNA synthesis, low levels of folate can increase risk of cancers. Folate is one of the nutrients most easily depleted by drinking alcohol.
- Iron, also key to producing red blood cells and transporting oxygen throughout the body.
- Zinc is necessary for immune function, wound healing, and appropriate taste and smell.
5. Alcohol Increases Testosterone to Estrogen Conversion in Men
Alcohol consumption can lead to an increase in estrogen levels in men due to its effect on the enzyme aromatase. Aromatase is an enzyme that is responsible for converting testosterone into estrogen. Regular alcohol consumption increases aromatase which causes more testosterone to be converted to estrogen.
The liver can normally break down and eliminate excess estrogen from the body. When the liver is inflamed by alcohol, it cannot break down estrogen as efficiently, leading to higher levels of estrogen circulating in the body.
This can happen to women as well as men. In women it causes symptoms of “estrogen dominance”, which can cause heavier than normal periods, exacerbated PMS, weight gain, and mood fluctuations.
Alcohol consumption also increases body fat, which also increases estrogen levels, as fat cells can create estrogen. Body fat can also convert testosterone into more estrogen. So, this increase in body fat can also increase estrogen levels in men lower testosterone. Lowered testosterone and higher than normal estrogen in men causes symptoms like gynecomastia (‘man-boobs’), lowered sex drive, loss of muscle mass, and erectile dysfunction.
Other Problems with Alcohol Consumption
When you combine the compelling reasons above with other potential problems that can happen with alcohol consumption such as:
- Other health problems: Weight gain, poor skin texture, bloating, liver disease, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, lack of quality sleep, and poor moods.
- Addiction: It is possible to develop an addiction to alcohol, which can lead to physical and psychological dependence. People with an alcohol addiction may find it difficult to stop drinking, even if they want to.
- Social problems: Alcohol use can lead to social problems such as arguments, fights, and relationship difficulties. It can also cause problems at work or school, and increase the legal issues, such as drunk driving, speeding and reckless driving.
- Mental health problems: Alcohol use can worsen existing mental health problems or contribute to the development of depression and anxiety.
- Financial issues: Alcohol is expensive, buying drinks with dinner can almost double the cost of a dinner out. Purchasing a bottle of wine daily or every other day can cost upwards of $300-$500 or more a month. People will often make impulse buys that are regretted later, while under the influence of alcohol.
Given all these serious negative results from drinking alcohol, I honestly do not see one thing about drinking that is good for you mentally or physically. If you feel you need to drink to get rid of stress, or feel more confident, try heading to the gym for a workout, or going for a walk or run in the fresh air instead. It will be far better for you in the long run.
One more important point to note: yes, our society has many social and cultural events and contexts that revolve around drinking alcohol. That doesn’t mean you have to avoid these things all together. Find an enjoyable, healthier drink and participate in the social activities anyway. I will say, however, I have found it is far easier to totally avoid drinking, than to try to cut back on alcohol.
The benefits of not drinking accumulate with every day of avoiding alcohol. My skin is clear and glowing, I sleep like a rock every night, I have more energy during the day, I am less often sick, I don’t have brain fog anymore, and my cells are better and healthier every day.
My partner and I found that we enjoyed having ‘Happy Hour’ every day at the end of a workday to relax and socialize and drink a glass of wine. While we did both stopped drinking, we continue that routine, but now we mix up a variety of fun non-alcoholic drinks like kombucha and mineral water, turn on some relaxing jazz, relax and catch up on the day, and feel good about it.
Enjoy your life, but without alcohol. You will be immensely better off for it. Cheers!