What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body, Exactly?


Medically reviewed by Kristy Del Coro, MS, RDN, LDN

Whether you are an occasional social drinker or enjoy a glass of wine daily, you may be curious about the effects of alcohol. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 78.3% of Americans reported that they have consumed alcohol at some point in their life.

But what does alcohol do to your body, and what impact does consumption have on a person’s health? We asked registered dietitians to weigh in on the facts and research. Read on to discover what constitutes moderate drinking, the potential benefits of drinking alcohol, as well as the risks associated with alcohol consumption.

What Is Alcohol?

Alcohol is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches and has an effect on every organ in the body. When you drink alcohol, it is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream and metabolized by the liver. Because the liver can only metabolize a small amount at a time, excess alcohol circulates throughout the body.

Alcohol is considered a nutrient with seven calories per gram. But unlike carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, it cannot be stored and used for energy. Instead, alcohol stays in the bloodstream until it is eliminated, which places a large burden on the liver to metabolize it and remove it from your body.

Drinking too much alcohol, or more than recommended limits per week, can cause health problems over time. Experts recommend that men limit their intake to two drinks or less in a day and that women drink only one drink or less in a day. To put that into perspective, one standard serving of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, like tequila and vodka.

Benefits of Drinking Alcohol

Research shows moderate drinking may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure. It also can be a source of some nutrients, and stress reduction. But, these benefits are completely individualized and are largely based on your genetics, diet, exercise patterns, and overall well-being. Here’s more on the potential benefits of drinking alcohol.

May Protect Against Cardiovascular Disease

Light to moderate alcohol intake may have a protective effect against heart disease and stroke. There also is some evidence that moderate alcohol consumption might help to slightly raise HDL, or “good” cholesterol.

Additionally, research on resveratrol in red wine has been extensively studied for its antioxidants that might protect the heart, says Andrew Akhaphong, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian for Mackenthun’s Fine Foods. “Studies show that certain types of alcohol may provide a high source of phytochemicals and anti-inflammatory effects. Anti-inflammatory benefits include improved blood pressure and reduced insulin resistance.”

May Provide Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants

Drinking alcohol in moderation can be a source of some nutrients. According to Lori FitzPatrick, MS, RD, founder and owner of Nutrition on Top, LLC, beer contains B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants from malt and hops, and even probiotics in some instances.

Beer also contains more protein and B vitamins than wine and they both contain equivalent amounts of antioxidants, but the specific types of antioxidants differ. Beer also is a good source of selenium and potassium.

Still, you should not rely on alcohol as a primary source of nutrients as it won’t provide enough of each nutrient to meet your needs. Whole foods ultimately are better sources of nutrients without the added risks of alcohol. For instance, drinking excess alcohol can impair nutrient absorption and metabolism of vitamins. Common deficiencies of heavy drinkers include vitamin A, C, D, E, K, and B vitamins.

Related: The Best Non-Alcoholic Beer, Wine, and Spirits, According to a Dietitian

May Help Decrease Stress

Beyond physical health, low to moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with positive self-perceived mental and socio-emotional health, says FitzPatrick. “Stress reduction and social integration are two possible explanations. Drinking alcohol has been shown to reduce stress signaling in the brain.”

In a secondary data analysis of 33,185 individuals, researchers observed that compared to abstainers, occasional and moderate beer drinkers had better mental health and social support compared to former drinkers who displayed worse indicators of self-perceived mental and physical health.

Still, it is important to ensure that drinking alcohol is not your only method of reducing stress. Having multiple tools to minimize stress and anxiety is necessary for good mental health.

Related: What a Glass of Wine a Day Does to Your Body

May Facilitate Social Connection

In addition to stress reduction, research has also shown that alcohol helps facilitate social connection and bonding, especially among groups of unfamiliar people. Sharing a drink with someone you don’t know very well may help you find some common ground.

Research also shows that drinking alcohol produces a neuropeptide called beta-endorphins in specific areas of your brain. When beta-endorphins are produced, they have a pain management-like effect and make you feel relaxed. They also are shown to interact with your internal reward system, which is responsible for positive emotions.

However, the alcohol dose matters. Frequent binge drinking is known to contribute to poor mental health, and withdrawing from alcohol can increase feelings of anxiety. It is important to ensure you stay within recommended limits to reap the benefits.

Related: My Dry January Turned Into Damp January and I Still Consider It a Win

Risks and Considerations

Drinking alcohol, even at low and moderate amounts, comes with a number of risks. Drinking too much alcohol is associated with poor cardiovascular health and any potential benefits are shown to not outweigh the increased risk of cancer that drinking alcohol poses.

Alcohol also is a major contributor to alcoholic liver disease and can promote liver inflammation, says FitzPatrick. “When you drink alcohol, your liver prioritizes alcohol metabolism over normal functions like maintaining blood sugar levels, so craving carbohydrates may be your body’s way of telling you that your blood sugar is low.”

Chronic heavy drinking can also cause intestinal inflammation and leaky gut, which can contribute to additional inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, liver, and brain.

There are also some individuals who should consider avoiding alcohol completely. If you are pregnant, it is safest to avoid alcohol as there is no dose of alcohol that has been determined safe for the developing fetus. If you are breastfeeding, speak with a healthcare provider about the individual guidelines and decisions best for you.

Further, people with the genetic mutation of the gene ALDH2*2 have an impaired ability to metabolize alcohol and eliminate its byproduct, acetaldehyde. They also demonstrate alcohol toxicity signs such as slurred speech, impaired mobility, and increased likelihood of vomiting and dehydration faster than the average person. This condition also places someone at a higher risk for esophageal cancer.

Takeaway

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

Tailoring Alcohol To Your Goal

While alcohol is not a substance that is needed as part of a nutritious diet, there are many ways to include alcohol in your life in moderation if it is something you enjoy or want to partake in the social aspect of it. Just try to avoid an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to alcohol.

If you are looking to decrease your alcohol intake, gradually do so over time. This approach will be more sustainable and better for your health than cycling between drinking too much and being sober. One way to do that is through the use of mindful and intuitive drinking.

“The principles of mindful and intuitive eating can and should be applied to drinking alcohol,” says FitzPatrick. “This practice involves limiting distractions, engaging your senses, paying attention to what you are drinking, how and why you are drinking it, and how it makes you feel.”

FitzPatrick says that being in tune with your unique preferences and how alcohol impacts you also can help you feel more satisfied drinking less. It also helps ensure your choices are more aligned with your goals.

If you are struggling to know how much you should drink, use a standard drink calculator. Keep in mind that some craft beers contain twice the amount of alcohol as a standard brew (5%). So even if you consume a single 16-ounce pour, you end up drinking more than one serving of beer.

Bottom Line

Alcohol includes some benefits for your health when you drink in moderation, such as decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and reduced stress and anxiety. Relying too heavily on alcohol or drinking it excessively, though, can contribute to significant health problems including liver disease, cancer, and cardiovascular problems. Speak with your healthcare provider for individual recommendations or if you are concerned about your alcohol usage.

Related: What Is Sober Curiosity? How the Trend and Your Nutrition Goals Can Work Together

Read the original article on Verywell Fitness.



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