How to protect yourself from the negative effects of alcohol this festive
season: #1 of our Real Good Holidays series
The festive season is inching closer day by day (the in-store Christmas decorations can’t lie).
As we approach the end of a year, we relish the opportunity to sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of our labour.
Food, friends, family and fun – what could be better? As much enjoyment as this season brings, there are also some hidden health minefields waiting to explode when we indulge in our favourite holiday pastimes.
That’s why I’ve decided to put together a three-part series to highlight some of the most dangerous holiday indulgences, and how to prevent ill health effects without spoiling your holiday fun.
Let’s end this year on a high note – full of energy and in good health. One very common festive season pastime is increased alcohol consumption.
Along with the year-end office parties, family gatherings, vacations, and New Year’s celebrations, often come abundant amounts of alcoholic beverages. After all, what is a toast without some champagne, or a good meal without a glass of wine?
Drinking and having a good time have become synonymous in our culture. The bad news is that drinking can have undesirable consequences on our health, especially when done in excess.
So what is excessive drinking, and why should we avoid it?
Excessive, or binge drinking, is an episode of drinking that brings an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above.
This typically occurs in women when consuming four or more drinks, and when men consume five or more drinks within a few (usually two) hours.
Women usually have a lower body weight and water percentage than men, which contributes to faster intoxication.
Women also have less of the liver enzyme dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol in the body, than men.
There are differing opinions on what exactly constitutes a binge; some believe that a binge only occurs when drinks are consumed in rapid succession with the intention of getting intoxicated, while others point out that regardless of whether two or five hours have passed, consuming more than four to five drinks in one evening is enough to cause intoxication and result in negative health consequences.
Alcohol is a neurotoxin – a poison that alters the structure or function of the nervous system. It functions as a central nervous system depressant, which means that when you consume alcohol, your brain cells communicate at a slower rate.
Additionally, it is also an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, which can cause hormonal imbalances.
Alcohol affects the limbic system – the seat of emotion – which can cause mood changes (including worsening a low/bad mood), and result in a loss of inhibitions.
This, combined with decreased function in the prefrontal cortex (the brain region associated with reason and judgement), can cause people to feel more relaxed and outgoing at first, but increases their risk of impulsive, judgement-impaired decisions as more alcohol is consumed. Drinking and having a good time have become synonymous in our culture.
Exactly how alcohol effects each person depends on a number of factors including body weight, health status, gender, ratio of muscle to fat, and genetic makeup.
However, one key takeaway is that regardless of the individual’s response, the toxic effects of alcohol should not be overlooked.
From a physical health perspective, research reveals alarming effects associated with frequent alcohol consumption.
Alcohol compromises gut bacteria, which is essential for immune system functioning.
This means that regular drinking may impair the body’s ability to fight infections and inflammation.
Binge drinking is associated with moderate liver damage and when combined with chronic drinking, may lead to fatty liver disease (FLD)4. Alcohol causes a rise in insulin levels, which over time may contribute to diabetes and, potentially, other chronic diseases.
Heavy drinkers may also have an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, various types of cancers, and liver cirrhosis.
Does this mean that you should never drink? Not exactly. Moderate alcohol consumption (one drink a day for women and two for men) has been linked to some health benefits.
However, consuming more than this on a chronic basis, and especially in a binge drinking fashion, leads to negative health outcomes.
Here are some tips to decrease the negative impacts of alcohol on your body:
Stick to no more than one to two drinks a day. Keep well hydrated. Drink one glass of water for each alcoholic beverage.
Eat a healthy meal before drinking, and snack on whole foods while drinking, to decrease the body’s alcohol absorption rate.
Exercise regularly – it helps to lessen alcohol cravings, and lessens alcohol-induced damage to the brain’s white matter.
Balance your electrolytes. If you are going to have a few drinks, have a glass of coconut water before bed to restore the body’s electrolyte balance.
Eat healthily to support your immune system. Choose wholefoods, and cut out refined sugars, processed carbohydrates, shop-bought junk foods, and fried fatty foods.
Supplement. Alcohol may deplete B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium levels. Good-quality natural supplements can help when taken before a night of drinking.
Milk thistle is also known to protect the liver from toxins, especially when taken regularly. Here’s to responsible drinking and good health this holiday season!
Tracy Venter holds an MSc in personalised nutrition.