- Alcohol acts as "empty" calories and can get stored as fat inside out organs—the most dangerous type of fat there is
- Alcohol can also disrupt sleep, which is critical to weight loss efforts
- But it's not all bad news! Moderate alcohol intake has some evidence for small benefits—so the most important thing is to make sure you're not overdoing it
Alcohol is stitched into the fabric of our society—and has been ever since its invention in almost 5000 BC.
Try thinking back to a celebratory event where alcohol didn’t play a role (champagne for a graduation, wine for a dinner, beers after work)... there aren’t many of them. But this widespread social lubricant doesn’t just impact our experience of social situations: Drinking can have massive impacts on our health, nutrition, and weight
As with everything at Habitual, we try not to be prescriptive, as we know that health is all about balance. Whether, and how much, you drink is ultimately your decision and a part of both your personal and health identity. We’re not here to deliver doom and gloom, but rather to provide a balanced cocktail of science, facts, and ideas to help you put great health habits into practice, even in the context of alcohol.
What happens in our bodies when we drink alcohol?
Let’s begin by looking at how alcohol is used by the body. Don’t worry, this won’t be your typical science lesson—if you keep reading, you’ll even learn about why the term ‘beer belly’ exists.
First things first: It’s important to note that, when we talk about alcohol here, we’re really talking about ethanol. Ethanol is the term for the compound in alcohol (wine, beer, gin, etc... pick your poison) that causes most of the effects of alcohol that we see day to day.
Once ethanol enters your body, approximately 10% is metabolised (broken down/used) by the brain and other organs. The portion that goes to the brain is what causes the intoxicating effects that we commonly refer to as being ‘tipsy’ or ‘drunk’. Another 10% is metabolised in the stomach and intestine. But the rest (nearly 80%) reaches the liver. We usually associate alcohol with the negative effects it has on the brain, but that 80% that goes to the liver is, in many ways, a much more damaging part of the story.
Once in the liver, ethanol undergoes a process called de novo lipogenesis (for you science nerds out there). For those of us that speak English, this simply means that the molecules of ethanol are converted straight into fat.
For a single shot of spirits (about 120 calories of ethanol), 96 calories of those calories end up in the liver and turned into fat. As a double whammy, alcohol is also SUPER calorie dense: One gram of alcohol has almost exactly the same number of calories as one gram of pure fat!
When we talk about a ‘beer belly’, it’s often in reference to subcutaneous (or visible) fat around the belly. But the even scarier fat is actually the type that’s hiding in organs like the liver. When the liver breaks down ethanol into fat, it keeps a lot of that fat rather than sending it out to the rest of the body. This fat build-up can lead to diseases such as alcoholic fatty liver disease, and is related to many other complications.
At Habitual, we focus a lot on what happens to various types of foods when they enter and get broken down by the body. And while it’s easy to focus on calories and the fat that appears under our skin, it’s also critical to consider that super dangerous fat hiding in our organs.
This certainly paints alcohol as a demon. And on the one hand, it’s true that it’s not good for our physical health. But alcohol is still a huge part of society and a source of enjoyment for many of us. The message here is not that you should necessarily give up alcohol entirely (though if you’re motivated to do that, then go for it!).
What we must realise, however, is that a significant amount of alcohol consumption can derail not only weight loss efforts, but also get in the way of preventing or reversing disease. As always, the answer is about balance and moderation: If that glass of wine is going to add a significant amount of happiness to your life, then drink up… but remember how alcohol can impact your healthy decision-making across other areas of your life as well (such as your eating behaviours or exercise routines). If the second or third drink means you’ll definitely go for a kebab or skip your exercise class tomorrow, perhaps think twice about it.
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How does alcohol affect sleep?
Alcohol can have direct impacts on weight loss and health efforts as outlines above, but it also has an indirect impact on sleep. And sleep is incredibly important to weight loss!
Frank Sinatra famously said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink, because when they wake up that’s the best they’re going to feel all day”. We all love a good Sinatra song, but he certainly was not a scientist… and this line couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s dismantle the myth that a bit of alcohol is a great ‘nightcap’.
To begin the story, it’s important to know that alcohol lives in a class of drugs called sedatives. Scientifically, this means that it prevents neurons from firing. This often confuses people, because most people tend to get more lively and chatty after a few drinks. So, what explains the mismatch?
As it turns out, alcohol first sedates just one part of our brains… and it happens to be the part which controls impulses and restrains behaviour. This means that once the alcohol hits, our brains are slower to restrain us, causing the ‘loosening up’ that typically happens after a drink or two.
After more time passes, alcohol starts to affect other parts of the brain as well, decreasing our levels of consciousness (that sleepy feeling you might feel when drinking). This is the effect that classifies alcohol as a sedative, and the reason that many people wrongly assume that they sleep better when they drink—or at least that it makes it easier to fall asleep.
However, there’s an important distinction between being sedated and sleeping. Whilst natural sleep causes a specific pattern of brainwaves, the pattern that emerges after drinking alcohol is more like your brain on a light anaesthetic, rather than your brain when you’re asleep (therefore, you’re not getting the same type of restorative rest that you get when you sleep naturally).
Ultimately, alcohol does two things to sleep. Firstly, it fragments our natural sleep patterns, meaning that we don’t access the restorative phases of our sleep pattern. Secondly, alcohol is an incredibly powerful inhibitor of REM sleep. This is one of the most important parts of sleep’s restorative and beneficial process, crucial to learning information and making or retaining memories.
The combination of these two effects has a drastic cumulative effect on our sleep quality and duration. Bad sleep increases our levels of hunger, cravings, and emotional variability (and therefore our weight and overall health). Adding the learnings of this in with what we have just seen, we can easily see how excessive alcohol consumption can further hamper our efforts to remain healthy and sustain weight loss by impacting our sleep.
Benefits of alcohol
We already promised that it wouldn’t be all doom and gloom, so here’s a bit of good news. Abstinence is certainly one solution to the harm of alcohol, but it certainly isn’t the only solution.
Multiple studies seem to suggest that people who drink small amounts of alcohol regularly may have a reduced risk of heart disease compared to total abstainers. The maximum benefit seemed to be as a result of approximately one glass of wine per night.
One 2015 study recruited 224 total patients with diabetes. Participants were given a daily glass of either water, white wine, or red wine. Interestingly, the red wine seemed to improve blood lipids (the levels of fats in your bloodstream) compared to water, and white wine was about half the improvement. Interesting, eh?
Although the jury is still out on a lot of these studies, we think the interesting point to take from this is that moderation and balance are the clear winner! Just like we suggest with exercise and nutrition, balance in alcohol consumption may be the answer here as well.
A quick side note however: Too much alcohol is definitely a bad thing! Beyond the dangers of being drunk acutely (there is a huge increase in the frequency of trauma/assault in those intoxicated with alcohol) if we chronically drink over the recommended limit (the NHS now advises no more than 14 units a week) we are putting ourselves at all sorts of risk— liver disease, heart disease, cancer, the list goes on. Just another reason to practice that balance.
After all of this information about alcohol, you may be wondering how to reduce drinking with all the triggers that surround us in daily life. Below are a few tips and tricks you might find useful.
Top tips to balance and moderation in alcohol consumption include:
- Try lower-strength versions of the drinks you love (Small Beer Co are a great local brewery doing half-strength craft beers).
- Try substituting some of your drinks with non-alcoholic substitutes. There are some great ones on the market now (Seedlip and slimline tonic is a great zero-calorie, non-alcoholic drink... and the best thing is that people hardly ever know you’re not drinking, as it looks just like a gin and tonic).
- Try suggesting activities with friends that aren’t at bars or pubs. Ask your friends if they’d be interested in taking part in your new exercise class, going for brunch, or taking a walk.
- Have a few designated no alcohol days each week.
- Reduce your calories by switching to diet mixers (Diet Coke, slimline tonic)
- Tell your friends/family you’re cutting down a bit—most people are super supportive… and if they’re not, it probably reflects on them, not you.