Booze: 5 Things You Need To Know

 Perhaps the best Guinness I've ever had - somewhere in Ireland...

Perhaps the best Guinness I've ever had - somewhere in Ireland...

I must begin this blog post by saying I absolutely love beer. Having previously worked in pubs and bars I've tried more different ones than I can count, and also enjoy all different types of wines, spirits, cocktails and bubbly drinks. 

However, it is always good to be aware of how alcohol affects our physiology. This blog post will give you an overview of health effects of frequent drinking, how your body breaks down alcohol, strategies for getting over a hangover, how drinking can affect your weight loss goals and what drinks to go for if you're on a strict calorie count.

1. Long term health effects of alcohol

You don't need me to tell you that drinking too much on a regular basis is a bad idea. This Wikipedia article gives a dizzyingly long list of negative health outcomes associated with too much booze. Too much is a bad idea, as is too much of anything. 

However, the picture is a bit more murky when it comes to the long term effects of moderate drinking. This article by Martin Berkhan gives a large list of studies showing the positive effects moderate, frequent drinking might have on health. He lists studies that look at the association of alcohol to several illnesses and diseases, such as cancer and even the common cold.

More recent research does cast doubt on the idea of moderate drinking being healthy. The article I just linked to contained the following very interesting passage:

While the supposed benefits of moderate drinking have been widely reported in the media, many reports have failed to take into account other risk factors. For example, light-to-moderate drinkers suffered poor health in midlife if they were former smokers or still had the occasional cigarette. This may be due to a direct effect of smoking or because of other lifestyle-related risks, such as lack of exercise or obesity. Many midlife abstainers also began their adult life in poorer physical or mental health than peers who had completely abstained from alcohol.

The main thing I took away from reading this article is that there are so many confounding factors when it comes to studying moderate alcohol intake and health outcomes. I think a cautious approach is best - I would imagine that a few drinks every now won't hurt, and the social activity that often goes with drinking is only a good thing. However, there's a fine line between drinking a moderate amount and too much, and it's down to each individual to decide how much and how frequently they can drink, as genetics play a big factor. 

One fascinating thing I learned was from this article was how genetics play a role in someone's susceptibility to alcohol abuse and other illnesses due to alcohol:

For example, high levels of acetaldehyde make drinking unpleasant, resulting in facial flushing, nausea, and a rapid heart beat. This “flushing” response can occur even when only moderate amounts of alcohol are consumed. Consequently, people who carry gene varieties for fast ADH or slow ALDH, which delay the processing of acetaldehyde [a compound your body turns alcohol into, more on this later] in the body, may tend to drink less and are thus somewhat “protected” from alcoholism (although, as discussed later, they may be at greater risk for other health consequences when they do drink).

Almost cruel isn't it? People less likely to get a hangover can probably drink more, be fine the next day, and STILL be less likely to develop alcohol-related health problems provided they aren't drinking to excess. 

This, I think, must be a real confounding factor in a lot of the research on alcohol and health and I don't know if it's always accounted for (I've read the tiniest percentage of research on the topic). It's why I think a cautious approach is best: a few pints a week is probably fine, but if you're getting smashed every weekend on at least one night and your tolerance for booze is really high, you might want to consider the potential long term damage. 

2. The (very) basics of alcohol metabolism

The compound in alcoholic beverages that make us merry is called ethanol. Ethanol is a carcinogen and needs to be broken down and expelled by the body. The metabolic processes that make this happen are more complex than I will ever understand (even the Wikipedia article on the subject doesn't do it adequately from what I can tell!!), so here's the very basics:

  • Ethanol gets converted acetaldehyde by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase
  • Acetaldehyde gets converted to acetic acid by aldehyde dehydrogenase
  • Acetic acid gets converted to acetyl-COA and enters the Krebs cycle (the body's process for generating energy)
  • Finally, the acetyl-COA is used and the last waste product of alcohol consumption is CO2 and water

Acetaldehyde is also a known carcinogen and may be one reason that we get hangovers, or compounds the misery of a hangover! It's no wonder you feel like a sack of shite the day after boozing; alcohol and its other metabolic by-products are known carcinogens. 

So, what else is responsible for the self-inflicted misery of a hangover?

3. Hangovers

According to Wikipedia:

Typical symptoms of a hangover may include headache, drowsiness, concentration problems, dry mouth, dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress (e.g., vomiting), absence of hunger, depression, sweating, nausea, hyper-excitability and anxiety.

Yup...I've experienced all of them bar the hyper-excitability 😅

The killer thing about hangovers, though, is that there's no proper, research-backed cure. The severity of a hangover depends on many things as well as the number of drinks consumed. I've had worse hangovers after 3 pints of IPA than after 8 pints of Guinness and there's no reason that I know of for why that would happen. As detailed above, genetics are also an important factor.

Although there's no known cure, my personal method for getting over a hangover (provided I don't feel so sick I can't eat) is a combo of water, Berocca (something needs to counteract the carcinogenic compounds in there and a super-dose of vitamins C and B can't be a bad idea), coffee and maybe Dioralyte if I feel extra awful. I must add - I drink them separately. This combo and maybe a fry-up seem to do the trick. Very low intensity exercise such a walk along the beach I also find helpful. Definitely steer clear of paracetamol on a hangover - the liver has taken enough abuse if you feel awful!

As a student when I was constantly out on the tear (this post is making me out to be a right boozer, I normally don't drink on 4-5 days of each week), these sports recovery drinks got me over the worst hangovers I've ever had - without fail.

Aside from the obvious short term effects of getting sauced, what does alcohol do to your results in the gym?

4. Alcohol and your goals

The article I linked to above by Martin Berkhan gives the best overview on what drinking does to your body with regards to fat loss. I highly recommend you read it. 

Alcohol is pretty high in calories, with 7 calories per gram - only 2 less than a gram of fat! Each standard sized drink will contain ~10g of alcohol, so a lot of calories solely from the booze and that's before you account for the carbs in drinks like beer.

When alcohol is in your bloodstream, the amount of fat that is in your bloodstream and getting burned for energy goes down. This happens wherever the calories come from - if you're eating a lot, fat can't be released in to the bloodstream from the body's stores and used for energy.

Alcohol acts like calories from any other source in this respect, but with it being a toxic compound, your liver and other organs have to work overtime to turn it into non-toxic compounds via the series of processes outline above. This means that it has to be metabolised before anything else you've eaten can be. The other thing alcohol might do is reduce your inhibitions with regards to food. This isn't good news if you're on a tight calorie budget and trying to drop weight - kebab, anyone?!!

 Kebabs..so disgusting they're delicious

Kebabs..so disgusting they're delicious

In short, drinking more than a couple is not the best idea if you're trying to lose weight. Some planning ahead of time if you have a big social event coming up is a good idea - maybe do a fast in the week leading up to the night out and save yourself a few hundred calories for the booze later in the week. 

5. What drinks are lowest in calories?

Spirits are definitely the lowest in calories. A single gin and slimline tonic will yield less than 80 calories. Drinks like this are a good bet if weight control is the goal. Beer is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to calories; even a 330ml bottle of 5% lager contains around 150 calories and pints are often over 200 calories. Cocktails will vary widely in calorie content, added sugar is the thing that will often bump up the numbers significantly.

The calorie count stacks up very quickly on a night of boozing and this is something worth remembering. There's a handy tool you can use here.

Summary

I suspect that booze is probably neutral, not bad nor good, when it comes to health outcomes if you're drinking under 14 units spread throughout the week. With all of the toxic by-products alcohol produces when metabolised, I don't see how there could really be any positives to drinking - but the body is pretty adaptable and with good nutrition and lifestyle habits the damage should be minimised. 

Keeping consumption moderate also makes it easier to stay in shape - you're taking in fewer calories, self-control with regards to food intake will be better and you'll be able to exercise easier if you aren't hungover! There's nothing special about booze that slows down or stops fat loss; calories from any source will do that.

I do think that, for many people (including myself), alcohol provides a nice buzz that it's great to enjoy from time to time in the company of good friends and family. I never tell my clients to stop drinking, but understanding how alcohol affects your body and results is key to making informed decisions when it comes to booze. 

Cheers 🍺 🍻 🍷 🍸 🍹