In part 1 of this Most Inflammatory Foods series, I covered processed oils. In part 2 here, I will cover alcohol – admittedly not a ‘food’ but it does contain calories. The body can make some limited energy from these calories but they are empty – that is, there is no nutritional value found in them and the processing of alcohol in the body is a costly exercise.
Now, before I go any further I want to acknowledge my bias – I am currently a non-drinker.
Prior to June 2021 I did drink. Once or twice a week, it’d be just a glass or two, maybe three. I loved my wine – although enjoyed beer also. Sometimes I’d stop drinking (or at least reduce the amount I drank) for a training cycle. But crossing the finish line of my goal race always meant celebrating with much anticipated and certainly deserved wine. And some periods in life (ahm, pandemic) I leaned a bit heavy on alcohol.
It was nearly 2 years ago that I just stopped drinking. I don’t even know the day because I didn’t plan it. I just know June 21st arrived – the first day of summer and my wedding anniversary – and I realized it’d been maybe a month since I’d last had a drink. I’ve not touched alcohol since, although to be fair, later that year I discovered I was pregnant and now I’m breastfeeding. My husband was initially apprehensive of my new dedication to abstaining, however he has since joined me (for the record, he did so enthusiastically and on his own terms).
I’ve come to believe that the harms perpetrated on the body by even small amounts of alcohol are worth looking at, AND, in my experience, most if not all people reach for a drink for good reason – it meets a need. This means in my books there’s no room for judgement (both towards ourselves and others!). I truly believe that only compassion and understanding will move us forward in conversations around alcohol.
Did I have a Drinking Problem?
A month ago, Bicycling published the article Does Cycling Have a Drinking Problem? and only weeks earlier Runners World published Does Running have a Drinking Problem? (one would think the efforts were coordinated). As these articles point out, any previously thought of health benefits to moderate drinking have been largely debunked; there’s no such thing as a healthy amount of alcohol (a glass of red wine being heart healthy is actually not true); alcohol, like cigarettes, is a carcinogen (in fact, we may see warning labels on bottles soon); and it takes only 1 drink to disrupt sleep, negatively affecting sleep quality as well resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV).
Of note, it was only a month prior to the Runners World article, that Smithsonian Magazine published this article claiming that America has a drinking problem. However, the focus was on how excessive drinking has become a larger problem than it was historically, now causing 20% of deaths in those in their prime (aged 20-49). To note, the term “excessive drinking” includes binge drinking (which is more than 4 standard drinks for women, 5 for men, in one sitting) and is considered to meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (aka being an alcoholic).
While I believe it’s easy to agree that excessive drinking is a problem, I’m more interested in any negative effects of that which is considered within low to moderate.
Certainly drinking within low to moderate guidelines reduces risk. As defined by Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, low risk drinking is defined as 2 standard drinks per week, while moderate is 3-6 drinks per week, and high risk is consumption of 6 or more standard drinks per week. And while recommended low risk guidelines are 2 standard drinks weekly, this is only to reduce risk – not in any way should they be called ‘healthy guidelines’.
I started drinking in high school and drank excessively throughout college into my early 20’s, particularly by binge drinking on the weekends. However, that changed after a few embarrassing scenarios where too much alcohol led to me either scaring or embarrassing myself.
Amongst many cringe worthy stories, the least offensive was the time I left all the contents of my purse including my wallet outside my apartment door (dumped everything out looking for my keys in a drunken stupor). My kind neighbour knocked on my door the next morning to let me know my valuables were strewn everywhere just outside my front door. Now, if that was how I continued to drink to this day, clearly I could say I had a drinking problem. But it isn’t.
I moved forward out of those days into my later 20’s and beyond drinking more sensibly – sometimes getting that warm and fun feeling, but no longer losing control or blacking out. Most athletes I meet who drink are in a similar boat to the one I used to be in. They do not have a ‘drinking problem’. They drink ‘responsibly’. They enjoy it and most believe it adds positively to their life.
They might joke now and again about a need for it when things get stressful, or acknowledge that sleep is never as good after a few drinks (although some ironically use it to help them fall asleep). But overall, they do not believe that abstaining would lead to a better life. In fact, eliminating it could make life worse – because it’d remove the easiest way to manage stress, access laughter and fun times, and help ease pain (both physical and emotional).
So no, I definitely did not consider myself someone with a drinking problem, let alone anything close to an ‘alcoholic‘, those who recognize they must abstain completely to recover. I wouldn’t even say the term ‘grey-area drinker‘ applied to me – this describes someone who consumes more than a moderate amount of alcohol on occasion, but doesn’t meet the criteria for dependence. No, it was more reaching for a glass (occasionally two) on any given night when feeling stressed or needing to unwind from the day. Maybe a half bottle on a Friday or Saturday night.
I don’t believe we need to come to the conclusion we have a “problem” with alcohol in order to decide to no longer imbibe. It is enough to simply realize we don’t want its deleterious effects in our lives any longer and can commit to finding alternative ways to meet the need(s) that alcohol is currently providing. Once we can locate and find a way to meet that need healthfully (if that is what we want), there’s no need to fight with yourself over quitting drinking. If quitting is needed or meant to happen, at that point, it just will.
Deleterious Effects of Alcohol
The interesting thing is that it can be rather hard to see the deleterious effects of low to moderate drinking. Or, prehaps more accurately, we see any negative effects as outweighed by the ‘positive’ effects of stress relief (or pain relief) and fun / laughter / social connection that alcohol appears to provide.
However, despite any screaming negative effects, as I understandably leaned on alcohol for relief from stress in the early days of the pandemic, I also came to see it in a new and clearer light. While there is nothing inherently ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ about alcohol (inflicting moral judgement onto it doesn’t make sense to me), I just came to hate that I wanted it. What can I say… I dislike reliance on external substances. This likely stems from my days being addicted to cigarettes (of which I quit at age 22). Anyhow, the list of things I didn’t like about how alcohol seemed to impact me was growing.
As I came to learn in depth later, I wasn’t making any of it up. One of my favourite resources on the effects of alcohol on the body is Andrew Huberman’s August 2022 podcast What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain and Health, viewed by over 3 million now. It’s a 2-hr listen, but in my opinion worth every minute. He details how even low to moderate alcohol use causes neurodegeneration, thinning of the neocortex – negatively affecting the part of the brain that takes care of memories, planning and regulatory function.
But in June 2021, I just intuitively knew I needed to stop drinking, because:
1. I didn’t like my need for it – that feeling like I needed it to laugh and enjoy life.
In short, alcohol felt like something I needed to have in order to relax, have fun or find relief from a stressful day. I was using it as a coping mechanism, whether I knew it at the time or not. As this article by Dr. Gabor Mate outlines, my choosing alcohol to meet these needs (of relaxation, fun and stress-relief) was me attempting to solve the problem of emotional pain, overwhelming stress, lost connection, loss of control and a deep discomfort with myself.
While I didn’t realize the complexity of it (I literally just thought I needed to destress), I was led to Dr. Mate’s professional Compassionate Inquiry program. I credit this course for giving me the tools I needed to step away from alcohol for good. I was then able to finally face the emotional pain I subconsciously carried, understand how to control my stress response system, and perhaps most importantly, connect to my Self and my inner wisdom.
Looking back, it was only a month or so after graduating from that course I just stopped drinking. Interestingly, randomly stopping one day is exactly how I quit cigarettes 20 years earlier. Just as a bottle of wine sat in my fridge even after I stopped reaching for it, a pack of cigarettes sat on my shelf for months after I quit.
2. I didn’t like the way it disrupted my sleep.
I wasn’t waking up feeling rested, despite getting what should have been enough hours of sleep. And in fact, as I later discovered, the sleep we get after ingesting only one drink is not the same sleep we get free from alcohol. As Dr. Peter Attia discusses here with neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker, Ph.D. (founder and director of Center for Human Sleep Science), while alcohol acts as a sedative to help you fall asleep faster, your sleep actually becomes more fragmented. This means you’ll wake sporadically throughout the night more. That’s the double edged sword of alcohol, it also acts as a stimulant, turning on your flight or flight nervous system – therefore the sleep you get is not restorative.
Perhaps most disturbingly the amount of REM sleep you will get is decreased. In Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep, he describes how alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of. REM sleep is essential to recovery and performance, and even having 1-2 drinks on any given night can negatively affect learning and performance for 3-4 days thereafter.
3. I didn’t like how anxious and depressed I was.
Not all the time. But often. And sometimes the anxiety and/or depression would get really out of hand. I knew alcohol was NOT helping and could even be playing into it. And in fact, for anyone prone to depressive or anxious states, alcohol is one of the worst drugs to reach for. As the Huberman podcast details, alcohol changes our internal state – we become less happy, more stressed and more anxious after the initial warm fuzzy feelings have worn off.
Why? Alcohol affects the hypothalamus, which signals to the pituitary gland to release hormones that are sent to the adrenals, which controls cortisol release. This HPA axis (hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis) maintains balance of what we perceive as stressful. People who drink regularly experience changes in their HPA axis so that they feel more stressed and more anxious even when they are NOT drinking.
It’s important to note that “regular” means as little 1-2 drinks just once or twice a week or 3-6 drinks once per week, on a weekly basis. Thus, regular drinkers, even those who don’t drink much, experience increases in cortisol release when they are not drinking – leaving them feeling chronically more stressed and/or anxious than they otherwise would be.
4. I didn’t like how it negatively affected my running, including higher body fat percentage, low energy and poor recovery.
Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram – some of these calories are used to process the alcohol itself and the rest might be used for immediate energy or be stored as fat. While an overall excess of calories is required for fat to be stored on the body, it’s typical I’d make poor food choices or just eat more when I had a drink in hand.
Most commonly, I’d have a drink or two before and during dinner – which would be hours after my morning run. We know alcohol consumption following exercise reduces the rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), thus inhibiting muscular recovery. While that study looked at ingestion of enough drinks to qualify as binge drinking, it must be noted that alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle. No amount is innocent – a drink or two is better than binge drinking, but not without at least small repercussions.
While I might have had a head start on recovery for the majority of the day, I was still interrupting the process just before one of the most important times for recovery – sleep. Because alcohol is toxic, the liver makes breaking it down and getting rid of it the number one priority. Therefore, the body is less efficient at doing anything else until the alcohol is gone.
I always knew for best recovery I needed to skip the alcohol and get at least 25-35 grams of protein, including 3g leucine, along with adequate carbohydrates to refill glycogen stores instead (which is what my goal is these days).
5. I just didn’t feel healthy with it in my life.
My feeling ‘subpar’ despite eating well and getting enough hours of sleep was really annoying! Yet there’s many good reasons for this. Being a toxin, alcohol enters our bodies and destroys cells, organs and organ systems. These destructions are directly linked to inflammation as our body “sends in the troops” to try to fix the damage (our bodies wise response to damage is a process that involves inflammation – beneficial when used sporadically but detrimental when activated chronically).
As the Huberman podcast points out, one of the key areas of destruction for people who ingest alcohol at any amount is the gut microbiome (the bedrock to our physical and psychological wellbeing). Alcohol has knowingly been used for centuries as a cleansing agent to kill bad bacteria, so of course it should come as no surprise that it also kills good bacteria. The disruption of our gut bacteria directly contributes to chronic systemic inflammation in the entire body by way of both killing the healthy microbiome, and increasing release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, creating leaky gut, which allows toxins into the blood and brain.
And of course, alcohol is a diuretic leading to either minor or major dehydration (depending on how much one drinks in a sitting). Even just one drink acts to suppresses the hormone vasopressin which causes an imbalance in fluid and sodium levels. You might be able to help offset this negative side effect by having 2 glasses of water with an electrolyte mix in it for every 1 drink consumed (this is something I never tried).
By way of damaged cells, destroyed gut microbiome, dehydration and non-restorative sleep, alcohol leads to fatigue, hormonal imbalances, headaches, irritability and gut issues including constipation or loose stools. On a more superficial level it also leads to loss of collagen and skin elasticity, hastening the onslaught of wrinkles and other signs of aging. In other words, really not the picture or feeling of health that I aspired to.
Moving Away from Alcohol
Ryan Duzer is an ultra runner and adventurer who eschewed alcohol entirely 7 years ago and claims his life is way better without it. He describes in depth in this You Tube video posted a couple years ago. He drank kinda the way I drank in my teens and early 20’s – binge drinking sometimes to blackouts 2-3 times a week. Alcoholism runs in his family, so in his mid 30s he just stopped. He goes into how everything in life is better now, with more capacity for love and to be present in life. I have to agree with Ryan that no alcohol provides more presence in life. Presence to all emotions that is – joy and excitement as well as grief and anger and fear. I needed to be sure I had the tools and space to know what to do with all my “negative” emotions that alcohol had helped to suppress before stepping away for good.
Back in 2014, I remember reading this post by Mark Sisson, author of Primal Endurance and former marathoner, on how he quit drinking his 1-2 glasses of “heart-healthy” red wine each night to de-stress (the claim of heart-healthy is now of course proven false). He found his gut health and his sleep improved. They were big enough changes he wasn’t going to go back to his daily habit. By the time 2021 rolled around, he published another post entitled Is Alcohol Bad for You if You’re Not Addicted? (answer, it’s a toxin that could be harming you but the benefits might outweigh the risks), and it turns out he still drinks a glass or two in a sitting, having determined he knows the line between how much alcohol makes it a poison for him and how much he can imbibe without negative consequences.
From what I see, the tide is turning. There are more non-alcoholic drinks on the market then ever before. My personal favourite is an IPA called Run Wild (yes obviously for the awesome name haha, but also, it does taste great!). Apparently there’s some good alcohol free wines available too, although I’ve not explored them. Years ago I actually had a client introduce me to alcohol free spirits via Seedlip, which fascinated me then and I imagine they are selling more than ever these days. Millennials and GenZ are said to be choosing these alcohol-free versions in larger numbers than ever before. As this article states, these healthier replacements are part of a movement, not a trend. I think this is really exciting.
My advice, take it or leave it: simply educate yourself on what alcohol does to your body, and determine for yourself if alcohol at any level belongs in your life. Only you can make that call. If you’re suffering from any kind of injury, disease or chronic inflammation I might suggest trying 3 months (or so) completely free from alcohol to support the body in healing – but only if you want to and doing so would not add stress to your life. If you want to but have tried and failed to move away from alcohol, I’d possibly recommend looking into Dr. Gabor Mate’s short course. That said, there’s many paths to self-discovery.
If you have zero health complaints and notice zero deleterious effects from a drink or two here or there; and, importantly, are happy with how you are currently using alcohol – well, in that case there’s likely no reason to change anything at all.
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running,
Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Sports Nutritionist / Run Coach / Therapeutic Coach