How Does Alcohol Consumption Affect The Body?

How Does Alcohol Consumption Affect The Body?

I hope you are all having a healthy year so far! One of my New Years’ Resolutions for 2024 is to consume less alcohol, and as a result I have been focusing inward on my personal alcohol consumption. I have learned so much about my own physiology and wellbeing, and I am excited to share my findings with you! 

In January of 2023, I  started cutting back on my alcohol consumption, and trying to untangle why I looked so forward to a glass of wine every night at 5pm. Yes, I was a nightly casual drinker that believed in the cultural and supposed health benefits! I had never looked at the ‘why’ of needing/wanting something daily to change my state of being. Over the past year I have become so aware of how culturally encouraged consuming alcohol is. It is advertised as an “escape”, especially for women and mothers. It is a culture that is built on folks that are stressed out and overwhelmed with life, promising to “taking the edge off”. More and more, I find myself wondering: don’t I want to deal with the edge instead of bandaid-ing with a substance? Similar to Naturopathic Medicine, I am trying to seek out the root cause, noticing that drinking is the temporary relief that provides a small window of peace/a break/downtime etc. That is where the work must begin!

I feel hesitant to write this as I know so many folks don’t want to think of alcohol as ‘bad’ for us. So I will write about the physiology of what alcohol does to the body, and you can decide for yourself if it is a substance that you choose to consume or not, based on the science.

  • The Cortisol Effect
  • Alcohol has the immediate physiological effect of happiness, relaxedness and elation. This is because alcohol inhibits the functioning of the brain’s hippocampus, blocking our inhibitory reflexes. This sounds all good, right?! The issue is, following this effect, the body starts to secrete cortisol (our stress hormone) and doesn’t stop. As a result, alcohol increases cortisol secretion overall, particularly when we are at rest, or going through alcohol withdrawal. As an anxious person, this shocked me. Drinking a glass or two at night was spiking my stress response and hormones constantly!

  • The Gut-Brain Effect 
  • Alcohol is an antimicrobial, meaning it kills bacteria. This is why, for centuries, it was used as a wound-cleaning agent. When ingested, it kills both good and bad bacteria in our systems, and completely warps our gut microbiomes. Alcohol kills the healthy flora that helps us fight invading bacteria and viruses, thus making our immune systems weaker. In addition, alcohol irritates the mucous membranes of the gut, which can cause ‘‘leaky gut’. Leaky Gut can lead to there being compounds in the blood that should not be there. When those compounds cross the blood-brain barrier, they can cause poor memory, slower recall and low mood.

  • The GI-Liver Effect
  • The Liver, in turn, responds to alcohols’ effect on the gut by secreting inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines create systemic inflammation throughout the body. In addition, alcohol demands a lot of the liver in terms of filtration, and can lead to apoptosis (death) of Liver cells, each time alcohol is consumed. When it comes to chronic drinking (even a few drinks per week), the Liver not only gets destroyed, but also responds by releasing damaging inflammation that wreaks havoc on the entire body. 

    Recent literature suggests that drinking can have terrible implications on overall systemic health. It is an unpopular stance as alcohol is so encouraged and celebrated in our society! As a healthcare practitioner, I don’t wish to blame or shame anyone, but instead share my findings, with hopes that you will find yourself in your best health.

    Be well,

    Dr. Kate