What are the health effects of alcohol and what can I do instead?
This month, as part of our detox and weightloss series, we are taking a closer look at alcohol. It seems like every week I read a new article about the health effects of alcohol – some saying it is beneficial for health (in moderation) and other articles explaining the negative impact alcohol can have on my body. Alcohol is a part of our society, in one form or another and, for many of us, it is a part of our life. If you know you drink more alcohol than you want to, then this article is for you. Here we look to understand why we drink, explore some of the health effects on our body and consider some alternatives to alcohol.
Why might we drink?
Here at the retreat we are alcohol free. Changing your environment (where you live) is a quick and easy way to break a pattern, certainly for a short time. However, the retreat is located close to town and some guests tell us they find it quite challenging walking past people sat in the sun drinking wine, or beer. But why might this be? Patterns in behaviour is the most common reason.
Sometimes, to break a pattern, it helps to understand the reason why we drink alcohol. So, what´s your reason for drinking?
Some of the common reasons we hear at the retreat are:
- “It helps me to relax”. After a hard day at work or stressful time with the kids or family, some people choose to “relax” with a drink. Alcohol physically changes our body state – it has an immediate effect on how we feel in our body. You can feel the sensations in your body change, the shoulders might start to drop and we can get a “fuzzy” soft feeling (which feels nicer than a tense stressed-out feeling). People who are anxious or stressed might choose to reach for an alcoholic drink to escape.
- “I´m on holiday”. For many people, enjoying a glass of wine sat next to the beach or in the sun during the day means they are on holiday. However, you can experience the same sensation sat with a coffee, or glass of sparkling water – enjoy the ambience, watch the people go by and enjoy relaxing (whilst knowing your work colleagues are all flat-out!).
- “It´s my time”. Sometimes sitting with a glass of wine, can focus our mind on one thing – the drink – and what we are looking for is quiet time, with nobody interrupting us. Try it without the alcohol. Instead you could to choose focusing on the deep breathing.
- “It´s a habit”. Opening a bottle of wine whilst cooking dinner, or sat with a gin and tonic once the children have gone to bed, can become a habit. We tend to associate the feeling of relaxation or peace with the drink, whereas that feeling might be because you are instead doing something you enjoy (cooking dinner) or because you do genuinely have some quiet time.
- “I have to be social with my work colleagues”. I´ve heard this said many times. People can feel under pressure to drink during work social events, or because part of their job involves entertaining clients. Consider whether a colleague or client would know if you have sparkling water (with ice and lemon) instead of a gin and tonic?
- “It helps me to sleep”. This is a common misconception with drinking alcohol – that it helps you to sleep. Read on and you will find the opposite might actually be true.
- “I become a better me when I’ve had a few drinks”. Alcohol can help us to lose our inhibitions, overcome shyness and, after a number of glasses, say things that we might not say sober! Unfortunately, at the same time, we can lose our self-control, problems can seem bigger than they really are and we can over-react. Work instead on building self-confidence whilst sober, so that you can feel free to be yourself, to assert yourself, feel free to dance wildly, to go up to an attractive stranger or do the other actions that you want to do. Taking these steps whilst sober means your sense-head is also switched on!
These are just a few of the common reasons people have for drinking alcohol. Next time you reach for a drink, at that moment, consider what that reason is for you,
What is a “healthy” amount of alcohol to drink?
Most countries now provide guidelines on what constitutes a sensible amount of alcohol to drink per week. However, we are all individuals and some people are less able to tolerate alcohol than others. Binge drinking – drinking a large amount in one sitting – is not sensible and is damaging to your health.
In the UK, the Chief Medical Officer issues guidelines on the safe level for alcohol consumption for men and women. The current guidelines (as of February 2019) are 14 units of alcohol per week – the equivalent of 6 pints of beer or 6 glasses of wine. They recommend that this amount is spread across the week (don´t binge drink all these units on one or two nights) and have a few days alcohol free each week. They also strongly recommend combining alcohol with intakes of food and/or water. For more information a useful website is Drink Aware (external link).
Last month we looked at calories (read the article here) and discussed that if we wish to maintain a healthy weight, our calories IN needs to balance our calories OUT. Alcoholic drinks tend to be high in calories, because they are made from fermented starches and sugars. Therefore, if you want to lose weight, reducing your alcohol intake (by cutting out alcohol, or swapping a pint of beer for a glass of water) is a useful way to also reduce your calorie intake.
According to Drink Aware, alcohol contains almost as many calories as fat – 7 calories per gram! These calories have almost no nutritional value – so we call them empty calories.
What does alcohol do in our body?
Ethanol is the main active ingredient in alcohol. Ethanol is a toxic substance for our body. It is also known as a “psychoactive” substance.
We cannot store alcohol in our body, so the body works hard to get rid of alcohol as quickly as it possibly can. It takes about one hour to process one unit of alcohol (but this varies person to person). Other bodily processes, for example absorbing nutrients, take lower priority. If the body has a choice of burning calories found in fat or those found in alcohol, it will use those found in alcohol first. Alcohol can have many short-term effects on the body (physically and mentally) and, with repeated exposure (regular drinking over time), these effects can become long-term and more damaging for health.
There are many specific ways that alcohol can affect our health:
- Increases blood pressure – drinking higher than average amounts, for example 3 or more drinks in one sitting, has been shown to increase your blood pressure. If you regularly drink higher than average amounts, your blood pressure will not have chance to return to normal levels.
- Dehydrates the body – alcohol is a diuretic, which means it encourages the body to lose water. During and after drinking, you might need to visit the bathroom more frequently (including during the night when you need to sleep) and you also lose water via sweating. For each alcoholic drink aim to drink at least one glass of water at the same time.
- Poorer sleep. Some people think that drinking helps them to sleep better – if you drink a large amount of alcohol you might feel like you drop off to sleep easily. However, research shows that people´s sleep quality is worse after drinking alcohol and you are less likely to wake feeling refreshed and ready for the day. This is because it alters your sleep cycle. Due to the muscle relaxant effect you are also more likely to snore – disrupting your partner and yourself!
- Affects your mood. People who regularly feel anxious, or depressed, might drink as they feel it gives them some respite from the uncomfortable emotions. However, for people with depression, drinking can create a vicious cycle, which leads to a deepening of the depression. Next time you drink more than a few drinks, take a moment the next day to really notice how you feel emotionally. Instead of reaching for a bottle, reach out for the alternatives and people or organisations who can help.
- Liver damage – the liver plays a central role in dealing with toxic substances, like ethanol and has to work hard to deal with it. If you frequently drink alcohol, fatty deposits are put down inside the liver cells. Over time and repeated exposure to this toxic substance, a condition known as fatty liver develops. Continued regular drinking can then lead to cirrhosis (which is the liver tissue turns to scar tissue) and the liver can even fail.
- Heart damage – there are some published studies suggesting that low levels of alcohol might be protective against heart disease in some specific groups of people. However, scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear that drinking higher than average amounts on a regular basis will make you more at risk of developing cardiovascular problems and sustaining heart damage. You may have heard that a glass of red wine is good for the heart – it is believed the main healthy effect is due to the antioxidant qualities (red wine comes from grapes). Maybe simply eat the grapes instead? To protect your heart we suggest it is better to eat a healthy diet and have a moderately active lifestyle, rather than relying on drinking a glass of wine every day!
- Alcohol also affects our brain – it interferes with the communication between brain cells. This is the fuzzy thinking that you might start to notice after a glass or two (or even a few sips). At an extreme, it can lead to black-outs and memory loss. In the longer term, some researchers are concerned that this can lead to memory problems and possibly dementia.
- Increased risk of cancer – particularly mouth, throat and breast. Research now clearly shows that regularly drinking higher than average amounts of alcohol increases your chance of developing some cancers.
What can you do instead?
Given all the possible adverse health effects of drinking alcohol, you might now decide to make some changes to reduce the amount of the alcohol you consume.
At the start of this article, we discussed the reason(s) why you might want to have a drink. Knowing why (what you are looking for when you drink alcohol) can help to decide what to do instead:
- Feel relaxed in your body, practice Yoga. Read this month´s article about self-care in yoga, which shares some practices you can try at home to relax your body.. A regular restorative or yin practice can particularly help you to find that bodily relaxation.
- Try a massage – read this months article about massage and self-care here.
- If you drink because it´s become a habit, then maybe it is time to create a new one! This is not as hard as it first sounds. Read our earlier articles here: how to create a new habit part 1 and part 2 for practical steps you can take to create new habits.
- Deep breathing to find the inner peace and quiet. Meditation can really help to find some inner peace when you are craving it. Use an app for a guided visualisation or try our five-minute meditation here. We also love practicing a walking meditation, if you are feeling too agitated to sit still.
You can read lots more tips and ideas for activities to aid relaxation without drinking in our earlier article: Take a break, relax and unwind naturally (alcohol free).
If you want to reduce your alcohol intake, but don´t want to replace it with water all the time, or want to avoid sugary drinks, there are lots of alternative ideas, many of which can look like an alcoholic drink (if you are worried about what people might think). If you are at home and want a “treat” then consider an alcohol-free cocktail – find yourself a lovely glass and enjoy it. Some of our favourites include:
- Tonic water and apple juice, with a slice of lemon and ice. One member of our programme team loves this and says it sometimes looks just like a glass of cider!
- Watermelon mojito is a great summer cocktail to enjoy. If you don´t have any watermelon, you could instead use pineapple (just blend for a little bit longer).
- At Christmas we love our alcohol free mulled wine
- Strawberry daiquiri is one of popular Friday night cocktails which is easy to make at home.
Here at the retreat we are alcohol free – it gives your body time off, to rest and rebalance. Being alcohol free for a week can also help to break a habit of drinking alcohol before bedtime, meaning guests tend to sleep better here at the retreat than they have in years. Many guests tell us how great they feel at the end of the week, even those people who said it was hard to walk past the local bar! They are always pleased with their will-power to return to the retreat for a vegetable juice next to the outdoor pool, instead of stopping for a glass of wine. Come enjoy at detox and weightloss retreat in Spain with us.
To your health and wellbeing.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).