There’s nothing like a hangover to make you say ‘that’s it, I’m never drinking again’. We’ve all been there - the night is so fun, until it’s the next morning, and nothing seems so fun anymore. Pounding headache, dry mouth, waves of nausea, with a side dose of the ‘fear’ - and having all been there, is it really that surprising that we are seeing more and more people go sober, curious and even, straight up sober?
‘Sober curious’ means drinking occasionally, rather than all the time - and being mindful and considerate about drinking when you do. At Agent, we feel like this ties into the bigger global trend of being more mindful about almost everything we consume - news, media, beauty products, food, drink and so much more.
To really make big changes, we think it’s important to understand the health implications of some of the decisions that we make day to day that have become so normalized in society. In this blog, we’re going to look at the dark side of alcohol and help you get your head around the science of what alcohol is actually doing to your body - so you have all of the info you need to break your own cycles this holiday season.
Is alcohol really that bad?
While it it can sure be a lot of fun, something that people seem to overlook today is that alcohol (ethanol) is actually a drug.
Ethanol is a small water-soluble molecule that is absorbed from the stomach and the small intestine, then is freely moved, absorbed and distributed throughout the water in the body. Once consumed, nearly all tissues in the body (think: heart, brain and muscles) get exposed to alcohol. Its impact is pretty major.
What are the negative benefits of heavy drinking?
First up, unsurprisingly, it’s the liver. We’re not gonna stick on this one for too long because we all know alcohol overburdens our liver with more toxins than it is trying to get rid of - but it is important to remember that over time, the impact of consistent alcohol intake can cause inflammation of the cells in the liver (alcoholic hepatitis) and even more seriously, can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrosis) and potentially fatal side effects.
Is alcohol a carcinogen?
The discussion around whether drinking is ‘carcinogenic’ is an interesting area to understand too. The World Cancer Research Fund, as well as the American Institute for Cancer Research, have studied this at length, concluding that there is strong and convincing evidence that links increased, sustained and heavy alcohol use can be linked to cancers of the mouth, esophagus, breast, liver, colon, mouth and more.
Are there studies?
Sure. A large study, following 88,084 women and 47,881 men over the course of 30 years (a very long time!) concluded two very interesting things that were actually gender-specific:
- For women - even 1 drink a day increases your risk of alcohol-related cancer - particularly with breast cancer in women (in both smokers and non-smokers); but that interestingly - this wasn’t the same for men. In fact:
- 1 to 2 drinks a day in men was *not* associated with the same risk.
So, does alcohol increase the risk of breast cancer for women?
You got it. Another study went further (and even bigger - looking at 320,000 women) and concluded that having 2 - 5 drinks a day compared with zero drinks increased the chances of each individual woman developing breast cancer by as much as 41%. 41% is huge and pretty scary.
What about the more short term side effects?
There are a lot of short term effects of alcohol that are less discussed - but equally as influential on our health. These include:
Increased levels of toxin & resulting oxidative stress - when we digest ethanol, we need to break it down - and it is the microsomal and mitochondrial systems that are faced with this task.
Ethanol metabolism is directly connected with the production of ‘reactive oxygen species’ and ‘reactive nitrogen species’ - free radicals and highly reactive molecules (as well as the production of things like highly toxic acetaldehyde) - the creation of all of which actually make an environment that is both highly toxic, but also favorable to free radical damage and oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is connected with a whole number of negative consequences for cells in the body (including cell death) so alcohol-induced oxidative stress is not where you want to be if you are on the path to good, flourishing health.
Impaired gut health & increased intestinal permeability - at Agent, we understand that gut health is one of the ultimate pillars of health so, when we learnt that alcohol intake (and the associated toxins ) actually changes the composition of our gut and microbiome, as well as increasing gut permeability (hello leaky gut), we started to understand more that not only were we damaging our ‘good’ bacteria in our guts by drinking, but we were also supporting the release of toxins through a permeable or leaky gut, out into our body, making our body more toxic than before the drink.
It is now understood from this study in the Journal of NeuroInflammation - that this increased gut permeability actually allows the movement of microbial components into the body. These ‘microbiome-derived pathogen-associated signals’actually then kick off inflammatory responses in the body - not only in the liver but also elsewhere.
Drinking alcohol triggers a body-wide systemic level of inflammation that is not conducive to optimal health.
Activation of an immune response - as well as triggering inflammation, alcohol can trigger the immune system, turning the production of some signaling molecules called cytokines ‘on’ - then leading to the activation of an immune response and an array of biochemical processes that come after that.
Stimulation of the immune system, when not necessary (i.e. there is no actual pathogen that the body needs to fight), is disruptive for the biology and physiology of our body, which ultimately is always trying to work in a regulated and balanced state (when possible).
Repeated alcohol intoxication over time triggers inflammatory processes in the body and sensitizes the body’s immune system.
A study linked here showed that alcohol exposure (and particularly heavy drinking) reduced the number of important peripheral T cells, disrupted the balance between different categories of T cells, and impaired their general functioning - as well as increased T-cell apoptosis (death!).
However, this study also showed that *moderate* Alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects on the adaptive immune system and might support an improved response to general infection and even vaccination - so it’s good to caveat this article with the fact that some scientific arguments, studies and communities do suggest that moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial for specific parts of the body and its functioning.
Impact on hormone balance - in simple terms, alcohol interrupts our hormonal balance and actually raises estrogen levels. When occurring naturally and at the correct levels in the body, estrogen thickens the lining of the uterus as a normal part of the menstrual cycle - but raising your estrogen levels is not especially desirable for women at risk for or living with endometriosis because it really can make the pain and the condition worse. If you are struggling with a chronic condition such as this, cutting the alcohol is a great way to try and better manage your condition - and to get to the root cause of what is really going on.
Impact on the nervous system - Alcohol interacts with brain receptors and even moderate consumption of alcohol negatively affects the central nervous system of our body (suppressing excitatory nerve pathway activity which is why alcohol is both a sedative and an anesthetic). Drinking will often disconnect us from being tuned into ourselves, our bodies and our physical feelings in the short term - and in the long term, chronic and excessive consumption of alcohol has been related to diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system (peripheral neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy, nerve-related issues - as well as dementia and delirium tremens).
Behavioral impacts & the brain - Alcohol impacts our brain chemistry too. Drinking makes you lose your inhibitions because alcohol depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers in the cerebral cortex. Drinking makes us clumsy because it impacts our cerebellum - our center of movement and balance - cue, the embarrassing falls when you’ve had a couple too many drinks. It makes us sleepy by interacting with our medulla, and it increases sexual urges but decreases sexual performance through depressing nerve centers in the hypothalamus that control these areas of sexual arousal and performance. Have you ever heard someone say that they ‘don’t like who they are when they are drinking’? - that’s because you ultimately are not working with the same brain that you do when you are sober.
Similarly, alcohol is a depressant - what goes up has to come down. Even though you’ll feel an initial ‘boost’ of happiness chemicals the night before, the next day you will be deficient in these same chemicals, pushing you into a state of anxiety, low mood and even depression that can sometimes take more than just the next day to re-balance.
And it’s bad for our skin and our aging process (gasp!) - we already know that alcohol impacts the healthy functioning of the digestive system - but what we haven’t discussed is that it makes it harder for your digestive system and body to absorb the nutrients you need to take from your food (particularly vitamins D, B, E and A - as well as key minerals like zinc, iron, magnesium and calcium). Inhibiting your absorption of minerals and vitamins limits the body’s ability to work on itself, and reduces its regenerative abilities, resulting in faster aging - something that we all would like to avoid!
Weight gain - each serving of alcohol contains an average serving of 150 - 300 calories, meaning a night out, or multiple nights out over Christmas can easily stack up the calories, to the equivalent of eating another meal on a night out.
We could keep going - but we won’t. What’s important to know is that something that can bring us a lot of good times - can also have a lot of negative impacts on this beautiful body that is working every day to keep us functionally fit and healthy.
Understanding some of the more negative drivers that are overlooked in relation to alcohol are key to helping us change our relationship with how we drink.
If wellness is a critically important part of your life and you haven’t already, now might be the time to look into reducing your intake or going straight up sober.
It might just change your life.
***THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED OR REGULATED BY THE FDA. WE ARE NOT DOCTORS, THEREFORE ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST.