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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Considerations with alcohol consumption

Many of us enjoy a drink now and then to unwind, reduce stress, or socialize. However, other than this temporary stress reduction and enjoyment, there is little positive on offer from a health perspective when it comes to alcohol. Rather, there are several health considerations to be had, which underline the irony of this quite toxic and unsafe compound being the most ubiquitous drug in the modern world. Hopefully the following reasons sufficiently demonstrate why I try to limit myself to no more than one day of alcohol consumption per week, and ideally only 1-2 drinks on that day.

This is probably the single greatest concern I have with alcohol consumption, as it is indeed a toxin. You have likely heard us talk previously about the epidemic of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a major consequence of poor dietary and exercise practices, and subsequent metabolic dysfunction. As its name suggests, it has a counterpart called alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD). Symptomatically, these two diseases look just about exactly the same. In fact, prior to the discovery of mechanisms of sugar metabolism and NAFLD, patients were often pre-judged by doctors to have been heavy drinkers when they presented with fatty liver, despite their occasional insistence that they hardly drank or didn’t drink. Both frequent alcohol consumption and heavy consumption of fructose and other refined carbohydrates in the diet will lead to this fatty liver, which is what it sounds like: many depositions of fat building up in the liver as a result of exceeding the cells’ capacity for fat storage. This phenomenon, known medically as steatosis, can be quite dangerous if not addressed or treated. These fat depositions can cause harmful inflammation of the liver, referred to as steatohepatitis, triggering cirrhosis and liver failure that call for a transplant. Consuming four to five drinks in a day can cause significant transient liver steatosis, while chronic frequent alcohol consumption poses a major threat to liver function.

2. Acute dangers

While those who drink are often fortunate to avoid situations of real consequence from poor behavior and decisions under the influence, everyone must remain cautious of the sudden destruction that can be caused by alcohol. Independent of the threat of alcohol poisoning, the safety profile of alcohol as a drug is significantly worsened by the rate of accidents that coincide with its usage. All of us more or less have a concept of the degree of cognitive impairment that comes with alcohol, and seemingly every day on the news there’s a reminder of the public safety concern from drunk driving. Though we may not perceive differences at the time, studies clearly demonstrate that general awareness and reaction time move in the wrong direction with any level of alcohol consumption, even just one drink. Needless to say, it’s not a good idea to have alcohol and get behind the wheel, though almost all of us continue to be guilty of it. I find that the best way for me to avoid getting in such scenarios is to simply refrain from drinking when possible, though otherwise I would undoubtedly plan out a method ahead of time that would allow me to drink and sort out transportation.

3. Sleep disruption

Clearly, I am very bullish on sleep as a valuable tool for improving health, and I have previously discussed just how much alcohol succeeds in destroying proper sleep. The first way in which it does this is the simple fact that alcohol is not only a fluid, but a diuretic. With the persistent urge to urinate after alcohol consumption, one’s sleep will be ruthlessly fragmented by wake-ups, many of which they will not even recall in the morning. Additionally, as a foreign, psychoactive substance, alcohol impacts the component of the autonomic (subconscious) nervous system that is activated at a given time. Normally, we operate on a spectrum of parasympathetic (rest and digest) or sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system activation. You might guess that parasympathetic nervous system activation is more conducive to restorative sleep, but of course our bodies panic in response to alcohol consumption, and this distress triggers a more sympathetic tone, disrupting the actual brainwave signature of our sleep. Lastly, alcohol selectively limits rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a critical stage of our sleep cycle that is already difficult enough to obtain. REM sleep tends to occur in the latter stages of the night after several hours of sleep, and the population already sleeps for a pretty limited period of time as it is. It’s highly important to preserve whatever bits of this sleep quality we can in the time we allow ourselves to rest.

4. Caloric density

While potentially less severe than some of these other concerns with alcohol, for many struggling to maintain or lose weight, it’s definitely worth mentioning the ease with which one can rapidly and easily drink their calories. Admittedly, many calories that come from alcoholic beverages are actually due to the abundance of sugars that accompany it in cocktails, or yeast in beer. This fact alone should deter one from drinking most alcoholic beverages, since we have talked extensively about the metabolic consequences of drinking one’s calories, and especially drinking sugar. Although, before you go on thinking you can lose weight by having shots of hard liquor instead, quite a few calories actually do come from alcohol itself. Energetically dense, we have already alluded to pathways (particularly in the liver) in which alcohol triggers de novo lipogenesis, or production of fat anew. Not only are these excessive calories making one gain weight, they are selectively shifting that weight gain in favor of fat, and in turn going a long way to disrupt healthy body composition and metabolism.

To conclude, I should stress that the purpose of this post is not to deter one from ever drinking alcohol. Of course, I can appreciate a really good drink as much as the next person. The important note is to simply not let it become a recurring, regular habit, and to be aware of potential consequences both acutely and longitudinally. These insights can help each individual take appropriate steps to mitigate their own risk, and determine what level of usage will be most suitable to them to maximize overall health and satisfaction.


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