Alcohol - to binge or not to binge, that is the question.
And the answer is a resounding NO!
To understand this lets have a little closer look at alcohol and the effects it has on our bodies as well as show how much really is safe to drink.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a chemical also called 'Ethanol'. That name may sound familiar, probably from back in your school days of chemistry lessons. It is produced by the fermentation of grains, fruits and other carbohydrates.
What effects does alcohol have on the body as we are drinking it?
Alcohol acts on our bodies almost instantly in a number of ways:
It depresses the Central Nervous System
In low amounts it reduces anxiety, increases sociability and causes mild feeling of euphoria
Easy to see why it can become addictive hey? However over time, consumed in high amounts it can severely impair our judgements, perception, reaction and lead to unconsciousness or even death. It leads to dehydration, low blood sugar levels, irritation of the stomach and it can effect nerves that control breathing and your heartbeat.
What are the effects of chronic long term drinking?
The effects of long term drinking have been associated with:
Cancer of varying types including bowel, liver, breast and oral
The phrase chronic and long term doesn't have to mean months and months of alcohol abuse. In fact just a few days of heavy drinking can trigger fatty deposits in the liver and other health issues.
So how does the body break alcohol down?
Alcohol is metabolised in the liver. It is broken down into a TOXIC compound called acetaldehyde. Luckily this isn't kept around for long but is broken down further into acetate and then to carbon dioxide and water. However the body can only process so much alcohol at any one time and its when it isn't given time to recover from the first glass before the next comes along that we start getting into trouble.
Does alcohol make us gain weight?
Now this is complicated question. Mainly because in some ways drinking alcohol on a moderate level can lead to weight loss. Lets start with weight gain.
Alcohol contains calories. A pint of beer contains the same amount of calories as a slice of pizza, a large glass of wine the same amount of calories as an ice cream and two gin and tonics the same as a chocolate filled pancake.
Firstly, when our bodies are trying to get rid of alcohol it prioritises it above anything else. This means it shuts down the digestion of other nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fats. If we are consuming a calorie surplus (more than we need daily) and drinking alcohol, any extra calories consumed while our bodies are dealing with alcohol will be stored as fat. I bet you are thinking about those late night kebabs now! Given that most of us drink when we are eating, we are slowing down the metabolism of the good stuff to get rid of the bad each time we reach for a bottle over dinner.
However, if you are eating a calorie deficit (less than you need daily) and drinking a moderate amount it is unlikely to contribute to weight gain. This is especially so if you are replacing your daily carb intake with alcohol - not something I recommend doing at all. They are empty calories and will provide your body with none of nutritional benefit that it needs. However, this is possible due to the 'high thermic rate' of alcohol which means that 20% of its calories are burnt off during digestion and for this to really work though we need to drink in moderation.
What is a moderate level of Alcohol to consume?
Again a complicated question which I have found multiple answers for over my time researching it. I would advise going to read Mike Matthews Blog 'How Bad is Alcohol for You, Really?' if you are interested in learning the nitty gritty. Otherwise here are the recommended guidelines on alcohol consumption as suggested by drinkaware.co.uk:
It is safest to drink no more 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis
14 units equates to six 175ml glasses of wine or 6 pints of beer
These 14 units are based spread out over the week
One or two heavy drinking episodes a week can increase you risk of more long term illness
My take home message??
Now before you think I'm going to tell you to stop drinking altogether I'm not. But what I am going to say is that if you want drink in moderation is it really worth it? I personally struggle to drink 'just' a glass a night and can easily be talked into sinking a bottle. I'm currently Day 7 of 30 days on the wagon and my goal is to stay there for a bit afterwards as well. If you have more will power than I do and can drink moderately try and stick to less than 14 units per week. Avoid binge drinking - who really enjoys the hangover anyway?! Save you big sessions for when they are really necessary - limit them to 4-5 times a year where possible. And when you are drinking remind yourself that you inhibitions are being lowered with each sip and try not to go from 'just the one glass' to your second bottle!
I hope this has given you an education into what alcohol does to you and why we should be vigilant about how much we are drinking. Check out Mike's blog and also head to the drinkaware.co.uk website for more information.
If your drinking concerns you please reach out. There are lots of wonderful helplines and charities that will help you. Don't let it fester and sacrifice your health.