So…the pubs are re-open!! After over 3 months of lockdown due to COVID-19 we can now all head back to our local boozers or favourite restaurants and enjoy a good night out. I therefore thought there would be no better time to write a post about alcohol and its effect on the body. But before I start, I want to make something really clear…. I am not here to sit and preach about all of the negatives of alcohol and make people feel like utter poo for drinking it. Anyone who knows me will know that I absolutely LOVE smashing a bottle of wine at the weekends… but this post is more to increase the awareness of the effects of alcohol on the body, to highlight when perhaps it can become detrimental to drink, and to provide a balanced argument for including alcohol in a healthy balanced diet if its something you enjoy.
Right where to start? Perhaps the basics…. What is alcohol? Alcoholic drinks contain a chemical called ethanol. This is a by product of the fermentation process which is a reaction of yeast and sugar. These sugars can be sourced from foods such as wheat, barley and potatoes. From a nutrition perspective alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, which is almost as much as fat which is 9 calories per gram. The calories we consume from alcohol are also ‘empty calories’ in the sense that they provide no nutritional value. Another fact many people are unaware of is that we cannot store the calories from alcohol, therefore our bodies have to prioritise burning this energy before we can begin to burn other sources. Put simply if I go and drink a bottle of wine and then smash a Big Mac Meal (example just sprung to mind somehow …cough me… cough) then my body has to burn all of the wine first before it can even begin to burn the Big Mac so what ends up happening is this just gets stored in the body as fat.
So that leads me nicely onto my main chunk of this post. How alcohol affects our diet, our mind and our body.
I have already touched on the nutritional profile on alcohol. I am going to use an example of someone who is looking to lose weight. We know already that to lose weight we have to be in a calorie deficit (burning more than we are consuming) so let’s say my example client is aiming for a total of 1700kcal a day. They hit this target throughout the whole working week, even sometimes hitting under to bank a few calories for the weekend. However, if my client then goes out for dinner with friends on a Saturday, consumes a bottle of wine (500-700kcal or just under half her daily allowance) there is a considerable number of calories gone even before any food is added! And this is where many go wrong. They think because they hit target all week and perhaps saved a couple of hundred calories, they can then go wild at the weekend of have a couple of ‘cheat days’ as many call it. Generally, most people following this will end up either hitting a surplus of calories over the week or break even which will see no weight loss or gain.
So that covers alcohol from a calorie and weight loss perspective but now let’s talk about those hangover days. The day after drinking lets me honest, we barely move from the sofa. Our energy expenditure and movement drops to practically zero (I think I set a record once of 200 steps because I was bed bound!). You may also want to eat like an absolute pig! There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, alcohol is a diuretic which causes dehydration and an imbalance in our electrolytes. When we feel dehydrated, we start to crave salt as our body’s way of encouraging us to drink and eat more. Secondly, I will go in to further detail later about alcohols effect on our mood but in terms of our diet we generally will tend to comfort eat on a hangover to make ourselves feel better. Usually this is stodgy, high calorie foods with little nutritional value. Finally, alcohol can cause false hunger you probably already slammed down a burger and chips at 2am but have woken up feeling like you haven’t eaten in years and then shove even more food down!
This is a huge topic so I am going to just provide the basics. Let’s begin with the positives of alcohol and why we perhaps drink. Alcohol can lower our inhibitions, give us more of a sense of confidence and relax us. You often find that people will drink alcohol for these reasons, examples include a first date and needing some ‘Dutch courage’ or perhaps winding down after a stressful week with a glass of vino and a movie (this is one of my favourites). I am a firm believer that in moderation this is totally acceptable and can also provide us with something to look forward to during the week. Of course, there is a flip side to the coin… and it is quite a big flip side. Alcohol is a depressant; this means that it can slow down our central nervous system. It can affect the part of our brain which hinders our judgement and decision making and can also affect our co-ordination and response time. Furthermore, people sometimes use alcohol as a numbing agent as it can dampen the pain signals in the brain.
One of the biggest effects of alcohol is that it can cause feelings of anxiety and depression (especially in those who are more susceptible to these types of emotions). Some may experience this more than others but I am sure many of us can relate to the ‘Beer Fear’ the next day. A lot of this is caused by the realisation of a loss of control over our bodies and what we are doing, as well as potential loss in memory leading to stress and worry the next day and the ‘what have I done’ feelings of dread. This level of increased stress and worry can continue for a good few days after a night out and can impact your day to day mood and mindset.
There are multiple short and long term effects of alcohol on the body. When we initially consume alcohol our heart rate increases and blood vessels expand which gives us that warm fuzzy feeling. Our liver is the organ which filters alcohol and as we continue to drink more units it becomes unable to remove all of the alcohol overnight which thus in turn causes us to get hangovers. Our body tries to dispel the alcohol through our urine leading to dehydration and as a side effect headache. Around 10-12 units of alcohol is when we begin to reach a toxic level. When we consume an excessive amount of booze, we also irritate our digestive system which leads to the nausea, vomiting etc. If you consider that it usually takes the liver around 1 hour to remove 1 unit, you can imagine how much of an impact excessive drinking can cause. When we reach our critical limit, in extreme cases alcohol poisoning can occur. This is extremely serious and our bodies functions such as our breathing and heart rate can be affected which ultimately can lead to a coma and death.
Of course, it is also important for me to mention the effects alcohol can have on our exercise and fitness. The main way alcohol affects our performance is through dehydration. Exercising shortly after drinking alcohol can increase dehydration further due to the elevated levels of sweating. Therefore, it is essential to ensure we are well hydrated when we exercise …. Something which doesn’t go hand in hand with a hangover! Alcohol also has an effect on our body’s metabolism. As we mentioned earlier, we have to breakdown and utilise alcohol as we cannot store it in the body, therefore our liver is too busy doing this so it can’t produce as much glucose which in turns means lower levels of blood sugar. We need sugar to give us energy and so if we are low on this our performance is naturally not going to be at its best. To conclude on this point, although a lot of people go with the principle of ‘sweat out a hangover’ realistically it is not the best time to be smashing a gym session. My advice would be to hydrate as much as physically possible on a hangover day and if you are feeling up to it try some light to moderate exercise such as a walk or a light jog rather than slamming a 1 rep max on the bench or deadlift… it wont end well.
Before I finish this post, I wanted to reiterate that I didn’t want this to be entirely damming on booze. I am a glass half full kind of girl (pardon the pun) and so I think it is important I finish on some positive pointers. Firstly, I am a strong advocate for drinking in moderation. If a glass of wine or a pint is something you enjoy, then I don’t believe we should spend our lives depriving ourselves. With everything I think it’s about being human and finding a balance, understanding the impact and effects and making educated decisions. It can be really positive to have a night out or dinner with friends to look forward to at the weekend. It can be good to wind down on an evening after a particularly stressful day. It can also be good to celebrate a birthday or special occasion with family and friends. So hopefully with all of the information you have read today you can find that happy balance😊
Drink Safe x