The Surprising Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol has been used as a social drug for around ten thousand years. You’ve probably seen many contradictory headlines about alcohol and wondered what effect it’s really having on your health.

As part of Alcohol Awareness Week, read on for plenty of interesting facts about alcohol and learn about some of its unexpected health effects. 

What is Alcohol?

When the ethanol in alcohol passes from your blood into your brain you become less inhibited and your self-control decreases. Your brain will also release dopamine, a chemical acting as a reward and encouraging you to have another drink.

Alcohol Awareness Week 2020 highlights the effect of alcohol on mental health. 2020 has been a year of immense uncertainty and change, bringing stress and anxiety. According to Alcohol Change, one in five drinkers in the UK, almost 9 million people, reported drinking more since lockdown.

Your Alcohol Processing Plant

You can’t store ethanol, so it’s quickly shunted to your liver to be detoxified by a series of chemical reactions. Midway through this process, a substance called acetaldehyde is produced before it’s broken down to carbon dioxide and water.

How quickly you detoxify alcohol is partly down to genes, but it also depends on the health of your liver. Some people process alcohol as much as eight times faster than others. If this is you, you won’t feel the effects of alcohol as much as people who break down alcohol slowly, so you may tend to drink more.

If you’re slow at converting ethanol to acetaldehyde in the first stage of detoxification you may feel tipsy sooner, and for longer. However, if you can’t break down acetaldehyde quickly in the second stage, one effect can be uncomfortable facial flushing when you drink, meaning you’ll probably drink less. Even so, you’ll be at higher risk of some cancers because acetaldehyde is a carcinogen.

Genes also determine your sensitivity to dopamine. If your dopamine receptors are sensitive, you may tend to drink more often because alcohol will quickly stimulate those receptors, and you’ll feel great. Genes and lifestyle affect how much dopamine you produce, so if on the other hand you don’t produce much, you may be more likely to turn to alcohol for its feel-good effect.

You can’t store ethanol, so it’s quickly shunted to your liver to be detoxified by a series of chemical reactions. Midway through this process, a substance called acetaldehyde is produced before it’s broken down to carbon dioxide and water.

How quickly you detoxify alcohol is partly down to genes, but it also depends on the health of your liver. Some people process alcohol as much as eight times faster than others. If this is you, you won’t feel the effects of alcohol as much as people who break down alcohol slowly, so you may tend to drink more.

If you’re slow at converting ethanol to acetaldehyde in the first stage of detoxification you may feel tipsy sooner, and for longer. However, if you can’t break down acetaldehyde quickly in the second stage, one effect can be uncomfortable facial flushing when you drink, meaning you’ll probably drink less. Even so, you’ll be at higher risk of some cancers because acetaldehyde is a carcinogen.

Genes also determine your sensitivity to dopamine. If your dopamine receptors are sensitive, you may tend to drink more often because alcohol will quickly stimulate those receptors, and you’ll feel great. Genes and lifestyle affect how much dopamine you produce, so if on the other hand you don’t produce much, you may be more likely to turn to alcohol for its feel-good effect.  

Alcohol and Your Health

It’s no secret excessive alcohol use is associated with liver problems, but let’s look at some other health of effects of alcohol.

  • Alcohol can weaken your heart, leading to irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure, and it causes blood to clot more easily. You’ve probably heard about red wine being protective towards the heart, but this is largely down to the antioxidants it contains.
  • Alcohol depletes your immune system, leaving you more at risk of developing lung infections, especially pneumonia.
  • It disrupts calcium and vitamin D metabolism, leading to brittle bones.
  • Hormone Imbalances. Drinking alcohol seems to increase oestrogen levels, being connected with irregular menstrual cycles and infertility. In men, alcohol can lower testosterone and encourages fat to be laid down around the belly and breasts.
  • Memory problems. People who drank 14 units per week were found in research to be three times more likely to suffer memory decline as measured by brain volume than people who never drank alcohol.
  • Poor gut health – alcohol irritates your gut and stomach lining, as well as harming the population of bacteria resident in your gut, leading to IBS, diarrhoea, bloating, indigestion, heartburn and even stomach ulcers.
  • Skin ageing – drinking alcohol encourages wrinkles and puffiness under your eyes.
  • Drinking even small amounts of alcohol is connected with increased risk of several cancers, including mouth, oesophagus, liver, colon and breast cancer. The acetaldehyde produced during alcohol breakdown can damage DNA unless plenty of protective antioxidants from fruit & vegetables are included in your diet.

A Healthy Relationship with Alcohol

Treat alcohol as an occasional indulgence, and if you do drink, choose red wine, so you’ll be getting some antioxidants in your glass. Or try a gluten-free tipple such as tequila, dry cider, gin or vodka. Experiment with using kombucha as a mixer, or be adventurous with spirits and coconut kefir.

However, if you’re struggling with health issues you can’t get to the bottom of, alcohol may well be playing a role. Try cutting it out completely to see if your symptoms improve. Studies have found abstaining from alcohol for as little as one month not only boosted energy levels and improved concentration and sleep, but participants were more likely to reduce their alcohol intake in the future.

A Helping Hand with Functional Nutrition

Functional Medicine likes to dig deep and find causes, so if you find it hard to say no to alcohol, I will aim to discover what is triggering your desire for a drink. I may recommend strategies to naturally help you manufacture more dopamine and I’ll arm you with techniques to banish your cravings. Contact me to find out more.

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