To drink or not to drink that is the question? Are you gaining body fat around your mid-section? Do you wake up in the middle of the night or wake up feeling tired? These are questions that you must ask yourself when it comes to alcohol consumption. Many people are trying to be healthy by drinking 1-2 servings of alcohol a day. Doctors are encouraging their patients to have a few glasses of wine with dinner. Some physicians state that research has shown alcohol can improves one’s health and longevity. I on the other hand have a quite a different view. Not only is alcohol detrimental to your health but it can actually decrease the longevity and quality of your life. It is not just the issue of calories or carbohydrate intake from alcohol but its effect on body fat, hormones, sleep quality, and physical recovery and regeneration.
Many studies indicate that alcohol intake does not affect bodyweight, but there is a common flaw in all of these studies. The method of tracking weight gain or loss is measured in terms of Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is an individual’s body weight in kilograms divided by height in meters. BMI is an individual’s body weight (kg) divided by height (m)². The use of BMI does not take into account the body composition of an individual. For example, if a subject weighs 150 pounds but gains 5 pounds of fat and loses 5 pounds of muscle, their BMI is the same but their body composition is completely different. Not only has that person gained 5 pounds of fat around their midsection which does not appear pleasant but they have also decreased their metabolism by losing 5 pounds of muscle. Remember you never want to lose muscle mass because it is your metabolic engine. The consequence of the extra 5 pounds of belly fat is undesirable and is considered a risk factor for diabetes and obesity. Alcohol also has a significant effect on lipid oxidation in the body. A study by The New England Journal of Medicine has shown that adding alcohol to healthy subjects shows reduced lipid oxidation in a 24 hour period (1). A decrease in lipid oxidation means that the body’s fat burning abilities has been reduced. Therefore if you are consuming alcohol on a daily basis, you are reducing your body’s ability to burn body fat and your body becomes a fat storing machine.
Alcohol consumption has huge implications on the hormonal system of the body. Dr. Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet, says that food is just like a drug because each time we eat or drink; there is a hormonal response that occurs. The hormonal response that occurs with alcohol consumption is a rapid rise in insulin from the pancreas to manage sky rocketing blood sugar levels. As insulin brings blood sugar down, the body goes through a state of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). There are a number of physiological consequences that occur. Hypoglycemia is an imminent threat to the body therefore a hormone called cortisol is released by the adrenal glands to deal with this low blood sugar. Through the process of gluconeogenesis, cortisol breaks down glycogen (stored glucose) or muscle tissue to release glucose into the blood stream to normalize blood sugar. If this is done repeatedly, the body senses this hyperglycemia to hypoglycemia as a stress to the body. This will continually stress the adrenal glands which will cause dysregulation of several other hormones.
This scenario can also affect your quality of sleep. Most people do not associate their quality of sleep with alcohol consumption. Ask yourself this question: Do you drink alcohol in the evening and find yourself waking up in the middle of the night for no reason? If you answered yes, alcohol may be the reason why you are suddenly waking up. The reason for your sleep disruption is due to the hormonal response of insulin and cortisol. When you consume alcohol in the evening with dinner, the blood sugar level in your body goes into a state of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). As you go to sleep, the blood sugar drops dramatically to a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) state. Since hypoglycemia is a severe threat to the body, cortisol is secreted to normalize blood sugar. Unfortunately, cortisol is also a stimulating hormone which may cause a person to wake up in the middle of the night.
The hormonal response to alcohol is detrimental to the production of our natural release of a hormone called growth hormone. Research has shown that as little as 1 glass (8-10 ounces) of alcohol consumed in the evening can reduce the nocturnal release of growth hormone by 63% and as much as 81% with the consumption of 2 glasses of alcohol (2). Growth hormone is known as the “hormone of youth” because it helps us retain muscle mass, decrease body fat, and increase longevity of life. Athletes are known for taking exogenous sources of GH to improve recovery and performance. Each time that you consume alcohol in the evening, you are lowering your natural release of growth hormone and decreasing your ability to burn fat, increase muscle and recover from exercise.
Now that you have all this great information on the ill effects of alcohol, what do you do about it?
In a perfect world abstaining from alcohol would be the answer. But I’m a practical guy and a practical nutritionist.
Here are some tips:
- Never consume alcohol on an empty stomach.
- Consume fat, protein and fiber with your alcohol to blunt the blood sugar peak.
- Drinking alcohol is a ritual for many people versus a need for alcohol. Try replacing a glass of red wine with a glass of sparkling water.
I had a client who decided he was going to give up alcohol cold turkey. In a matter of a week he had lost 1 percent of his body fat without exercising or changing his nutrition. As he started to feel better the client later admitted to me that he only drank out of habit. A habit he no longer has.
Try it for a month and see what happens. The worse thing that could happen is your hormones may normalize, you’ll feel well rested, and shed a few unwanted pounds! Good luck.
- Suter PM, Schutz Y, Jéquier E. The effect of ethanol on fat storage in healthy subjects. N Engl J Med 1992;326:983-987.
Ekman AC, Vakkuri O, Ekman M, Leppaluoto J, Ruokonen A, Knip M. Ethanol decreases nocturnal plasma levels of thyrotropin and growth hormone but not those of thyroid hormones or prolactin in man. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1996;2627-2632.