What alcohol does to your Body, Brain and Health.


Christmas and the silly season are almost upon us. And if you, like us here at the clinic, have been nourishing yourself and your health all year long and are feeling the loom of the social season and what this might do to set you back, then we are here to help you navigate this.

Let’s talk about alcohol. Alcohol is the social lubricant of popular choice and generally the most socially acceptable drug following caffeine. But do you actually know what alcohol is doing to your body? For example most people don’t know it will actually increase their stress hormones the next day, most people don’t know the impact it has on their sleep or their gut microbiome. Read on so you can know what you can do about it, if you choose to partake in the occasional beverage?

Most people know that regular long term alcohol consumption comes with many well-established risks including diabetes, weight gain, infertility, reduced testosterone, sexual dysfunction, stroke, dementia, cardiovascular disease, many types of cancers specifically breast cancer, liver disease and more. In Australia one standard drink refers to any beverage containing 10gm of alcohol. Most drinks served are above one standard drink.  With health impacts relating to alcohol volume, we should all pay particular attention to the number of standard drinks being consumed, rather than just the number of drinks being served.  For example, most restaurant wine serves are 1.5 standard drinks, most champagne glasses equate to 1.4 standard drinks, the average beer is also above 1 standard drink.

National updated guidelines advise a limit of 10 drinks per week, and no more than 4 drinks on a given day – these are standard drinks. Consumption above this amount has been shown to contribute to a wide range of negative health outcomes.  It may however be time to rethink these amounts and give focus to drinking frequency, given what is emerging regarding the longer-term impacts of regular low level alcohol intake on the brain, gut, hormones and stress system (HPA axis).

Evidence suggests that drinking just 1-2 drinks, on a regular basis, results in measurable structural brain changes that can have big impacts on your overall mood and stress levels. Studies have shown that 2 drinks a day is linked with changes in the brain equivalent to aging 2 years. The difference between 0 drinks a day and 4 drinks a day was linked to equivalent changes to 10 years of aging. It was also found that regular alcohol consumption results in a lower volume of both white and grey matter of the brain.  Alcohol literally shrinks the brain, pretty important to know if you are becoming a habitual drinker.

After that first sip, our body goes to work metabolising alcohol, this process itself places an increased demand on our nutrients zinc, folate, magnesium, B-vitamins and our antioxidant capacity. Alcohol rapidly crosses the blood brain barrier and makes a big impact. Alcohol leads to a temporary increase in brain serotonin and dopamine (our happy and reward neurotransmitters), eliciting the mild euphoria of the first drink. This is quickly followed by a rebound reduction in these feel-good neurotransmitters, and an increased desire to drink more to restore this feeling. This is really important to understand. Regular alcohol exposure changes the structure of the serotonin and dopamine circuits, it reduces our response to these feel good neurotransmitters, making us feel more anxious and less happy, both when sober and when drinking.

Alcohol also interacts with the GABA receptors in the brain. GABA is our calming neurotransmitter.  Alcohol temporarily increases the effects of GABA, which produces an overall feeling of relaxation and reduced inhibition. Unfortunately with regular low-moderate level alcohol consumption, the GABA receptor becomes less responsive to alcohol, BUT most importantly, our brain also become less responsive to GABA when sober. The consequence of this is that we feel less relaxed in general life, more agitated and more sensitive to perceived stress. Knowing this is really important. Many people drink to unwind BUT everyone should know that actually it will result in you feeling more agitated and less able to unwind the next day – this could result in a vicious cycle as it may make you think you should have another drink to try and unwind the next day!

Alcohol also impacts your ability to manage stress in other ways. Current studies show that with regular drinking, the baseline level of cortisol and noradrenaline released from the adrenal gland is higher AT ALL times, this means both when sober and when drinking.
These changes indicate that with low-moderate level regular drinking, we are likely to feel more stressed, more anxious, less happy and have less resilience to stressful events in everyday life. Knowledge is power. It is important to know this stuff. So many people drink to help alleviate stress without realising it is making their coping ability worse!  The longer you practise regular drinking, the worse the lows become.

It would be a far cry from reality if the naturopaths weren’t talking about gut health at every opportunity – least of all a discussion about alcohol. Alcohol, in any amount, opens the tight junctions between your gut epithelial cells and keeps them open for longer than they should. Why is this a problem? Tight junctions are important dynamic “gates” in our gut wall. They are meant to open, but not all the time, and they should close appropriately too. When these gates are forced to stay open, we get movement of toxins, bacteria, pathogens, metabolic wastes (think hormones on the way out) and larger food molecules from the lumen of the gut into the immune system and systemic circulation. This temporary increase in intestinal permeability, added to the direct disruption to the microbiome from alcohol ingestion, has far reaching consequences on brain inflammation (think brain fog), mood, immune function, skin health, inflammation, hormone balance and more.

So, let’s talk about what you can do if you choose to enjoy those Christmas bubbles.

Here are our best tips to avoid the negative consequences of drinking:

  • Eat a meal containing all the macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate and protein) before and during drinking, and include veggies – this slows the absorption of alcohol and therefore slows its metabolism, allowing the liver more time metabolise the alcohol that is being consumed. Veggies coat the intestine with a layer of mucous, potentially reducing the damage alcohol inflicts on gastrointestinal cells.
  • Eat fermented foods daily (if you tolerate them), and before and after drinking, or talk to your naturopath about a probiotic that may be suitable for you to support your gut microbiome. On a side note, if you don’t tolerate fermented foods this speaks to a dysbiotic environment or issues with histamine that you should talk to your practitioner about.
  • Choose your alcohol wisely, here is a good tip to know: Congeners are substances in alcohol that give distinctive flavour, but also correlate to hangover by their ability to disrupt the microbiome. The lower the congeners the better, use colour as a guide. The darker the drink the higher the congeners. Lower congener alcohol includes white spirits like vodka, and gin; high congener (and high hangover) alcohols are red wine, whisky and rum.
  • Avoid sugar with your drinks. Alcohol high in sugar contributes to the load on both your liver and your microbiome, will inflame your gut and worsen the issue of intestinal permeability thereby worsening the potential for hangover. Avoid the high sugar cocktails and go for mixers like soda water with fresh lime or berries, or mixers sweetened with stevia, monk fruit or erythritol.
  • Hydrate – alcohol is dehydrating, so make sure you space your drinks with water, or choose a delicious non-alcoholic beverage like sparkling water, kombucha or raid the non-alcohol cocktail section of the grocery store, which is now teaming with healthy low/no sugar options (look for stevia, monk fruit or erythritol sweeteners). We like Nexba, and Naked life brands.
  • Consider your electrolytes (as prescribed) before and after drinking to replace those lost due to the diuretic effect of alcohol.
  • Take your prescribed supplements – metabolising alcohol increases the demand for zinc, B-vitamins, magnesium, and your antioxidant capacity. Discuss with your practitioner what might be suitable for you, be honest about your consumption so we are able to best support you.
  • Liver supporting herbs – these must be professionally prescribed, and can be very helpful to support phase 1 and 2 liver detoxification, and support the protective capacity of your liver cells.
  • Deliberate cold exposure – cold showers or a dunk in the ocean for 1-7 minutes can lessen the experience of hangover – this should be done the next day, never under the influence or alcohol.
  • Remember, the only thing that clears alcohol from the body is time. Caffeine, food, and cold exposure will not change the time needed for alcohol to be metabolised.
  • As always, a diet rich in polyphenols, plant fibres, probiotic and prebiotic foods, healthy fats, plentiful vegetables and high-quality proteins constitute the building blocks of good health.

Most of all, avoid alcohol becoming a habit as it really does play havoc with our ability to handle stress, our mood regulation, our sleep and our gut health.

Emma X