Monday, August 4, 2008

Maybe just one more?

It happens to the best of us. We’ve just worked a monster day, barely having time to stop for lunch and the end of the day just won’t arrive quickly enough. When we finally get home, we kick off the heels and open a bottle of red. “I’ll just have one glass” we mutter. But then no dinner cooking experience is complete without a glass of wine so we pour another. Dinner without wine just wouldn’t seem right so another is poured and before we know it, the bottle is empty. This is an all too common occurrence and even if you aren’t polishing off a bottle a night, do you really know the effect alcohol is having on your system?

Alcohol has been consumed by humans since pre-historic times[1] and is commonly used for a number of different hygienic, dietary, medicinal, religious, and recreational reasons. Ethanol, commonly known as alcohol, is a psychoactive drug that acts primarily upon the central nervous system altering brain function. The result of this promotes temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behaviour. This is probably why most of us enjoy it so much. It provides a release from the day to day things we get caught up in and allows us to escape for a short space of time.

Recent studies suggest that drinking in moderation can have a range of positive health benefits such as a lower risk of heart attack[2], lower risk of diabetes[3], lower risk of Alzheimer's disease[4], reduced risk of stroke[5] and an increase in overall longevity[6]. The key to the benefits of alcohol is moderation. All of the above reported benefits have the potential to be reversed with excessive alcohol consumption. But does anyone really know what’s classified as moderate? US dietary guidelines defines moderate drinking as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. And for all you clever thinkers, this does not mean that if you haven’t had a drink for 4 days that you can safely have 4 in one night.

It’s important to remember the role of the liver when it comes to alcohol consumption. A healthy liver should be able to process moderate amounts of alcohol with very little fuss. But when the liver is compromised (due to excessive alcohol, poor diet, stress, medications/drugs), it only makes sense that its capacity to function will also be compromised. Poor liver function can affect our health in a number of ways including hormonal imbalances, impaired digestive function, emotional disturbances and reduced energy levels. Sound familiar?

In order to maintain hormonal balance, the liver must process our hormones to be converted into other substances or, if no longer needed in the body, prepared for elimination. Speaking specifically of oestrogen, if the liver is not functioning at full speed, it can re-enter the circulation and cause an oestrogen dominant environment. This is where things like weight gain, fibroids, endometriosis, PMS, fluid retention, low libido, infertility and breast and uterine cancers can develop. Looking at this list, is that extra glass of red really that necessary?

Drinking has long been associated with weight gain and it is the effect alcohol has on blood sugar levels that is a major concern. Alcohol does not supply any essential nutrients and our body uses the calories alcohol provides as energy. In small amounts this is fine but what is not immediately used for energy production will be stored as fat. If you haven't eaten for a while, your body uses its liver stores of glucose for energy. When these stores are used up, the liver makes glucose from other sources. However, alcohol inhibits the liver from making glucose, so if you haven't eaten, you run the risk of low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). In fact, the glucose-lowering action of alcohol can last 8 to 12 hours after you had your last drink[7]. When our blood sugar levels get too low, we start craving carbs and sweet things to boost those levels back up. So begins the vicious cycle of snacking on the wrong foods, which further alters blood sugar regulation and contributes to weight gain.

Dietary factors need to be taken into consideration when looking at the effect of alcohol. Alcohol inhibits the breakdown of nutrients into beneficial molecules by reducing the secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. It impairs nutrient absorption by damaging the cells lining the stomach and intestines and disabling transport of some nutrients into the blood. All that hard work we put into making sure we eat the right foods is suddenly coming undone.

While it may not be possible to remove all toxic substances from our diet and environment, making a conscious effort to limit alcohol consumption is a great start. Set a goal and stick to it. It might be to not have more than 2 drinks a week or better still, plan to have an alcohol free month. The difference in how you feel and how your body functions will be amazing. Seriously, when was the last time you went that long without a drink? Feel empowered by proving that you can do it and reward your self with a massage once you have made it through the month. Because, you deserve it.