A couple of quiet beverages after a trying day can be just the ticket for bringing on a relaxed and calm feeling. But if you regularly drink alcohol, do you know what levels of alcohol are considered risky, or what damage is being done to your digestive system and body as a whole?
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m going to give you a spoiler alert here: this blog is a bit of a Debbie Downer on the consumption of alcohol. But if you are a regular alcohol consumer, it may cause you to make some changes for the better in terms of your long-term health.
A recent report published by Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found that more than two thirds of people who drink alcohol on a regular basis do not know if their drinking levels are setting the stage for serious health problems down the track. That also suggests they aren’t entirely sure how much alcohol is being consumed.
What are risky levels though? And how does it affect your digestion? And, how does Chinese medicine perceive alcohol in the framework of health and wellness?
What does alcohol do to your digestion
The bottom line is that alcohol is a poison and an irritant. Even small amounts irritate the lining of the stomach which starts a cascade of effects. Taken occasionally, your body can deal with eliminating alcohol, but regular drinking (as in, every week) will take it’s toll on your digestion and overall long-term health.
To be clear, we are not talking about the occasional glass of wine in toast to an event, or a glass of wine for a special dinner out or special moment.
We are talking about the kind of alcohol consumption that happens most days. And given that over two thirds of people who drink alcohol underestimate what safe levels are, it is likely that if you consume alcohol most days in the week, you’re drinking unsafe amounts of alcohol.
Let’s start at the first sip
To understand how alcohol affects you, let’s start at the top.
First, the consumption of alcohol irritates your stomach, causing your stomach to product more acid. In turn, this can cause reflux which is stomach acid burning your throat. Whilst in your stomach, there are also signals to increase blood sugar metabolism which causes a spike, but ultimately causes low blood sugar – shakiness, mood swings, fatigue and anxiety.
Further, alcohol greatly reduces the secretion of vasopressin in the body, which is an enzyme that has a hand in controlling fluid levels in your body. This is why alcohol is a diuretic - keep in mind that the body produces 320ml of urine for each 200 mls of alcohol consumed. Now you know why you get dehydrated!
Anyhoo, we digress
As alcohol is seen as a toxin, most other systems in your body slow down to allow the elimination of the alcohol you have consumed. That brings us to the liver. The liver processes around 90% of alcohol out of your body. The remaining 10% exits through sweat, urine and breath.
If you imagine the liver like a bucket, it only holds a certain amount. For example, the liver can process one standard alcoholic beverage per hour. If you are drinking more than that, your liver-bucket overflows, the alcohol is left unprocessed and begins circulating through the blood stream, through the heart and brain – which is how intoxication begins.
To process alcohol, your liver passes the alcohol through two filtrations. First it filters the alcohol molecules and changes the structure into acetaldehyde, which by the way is far more toxic than alcohol on it’s own! The second pass breaks down acetaldehyde into acetate, which is like vinegar. From here the toxin can be eliminated. These filtration processes use up nutrients in your body.
These nutrients are known as co-factors and enzymes. Broadly speaking, your liver uses up large amounts of your Zinc and vitamin B3 stores to process alcohol. If you run out of the nutrients your body needs to process alcohol, acetaldehyde builds up in your system and you have the base ingredient for a bad hangover.
OK, so how much is too much?
The “how much is too much?” question has a lot of variables, including whether you are male or female, your weight, the ambient temperature, what you’re eating or even what kind of health condition you are in.
The Australian government website health.gov.au outlines that it is never safe to drink alcohol, and that the more you drink, the greater the risk to your health. The Australian National Health and Medical Research council outlines a maximum of 10 standard drinks in a week, and no more than 4 on any given day.
That’s not a lot of alcohol! A bottle of red wine at 13.5% alcoholic volume has 8 standard drinks in it. A small glass of wine, say 150mls, has 1.6 standard drinks. So, a glass of wine would be most of your daily alcohol “allowance”. Who stops at one small glass? Statistics say only one in five of us do.
Safe amounts of alcohol depends on a person’s body weight, size and whether they are male or female. Women absorb more alcohol from each drink in comparison to males, so they are at greater risk of liver damage.
Consuming 2 to 3 alcoholic drinks daily can harm one’s liver. Furthermore, binge drinking, or drinking 4 to 5 drinks in a row, can also result in liver damage.
OK Sharon, we get the point...
It sounds all gloom and doom, but the worrying part is that alcohol is a toxin, it poisons your body. By drinking alcohol you substantially increase your risk for different types of cancers, mental health problems and chronic health diseases including type two diabetes. That’s just the physiological affects, which don’t account for the amount of money spent on alcohol, nor the damage that is done from drinking-related accidents or to our relationships.
Our society norms have “normalised” drinking alcohol to the point where if you don’t drink, people think there is something wrong with you. In fact, up until just recently, if you went to a restaurant and you didn’t drink alcohol, the only other choice for a beverage was a can of coke, fanta or lemonade.
Alcohol, digestion and Chinese medicine
So what is the take on alcohol in Chinese medicine? Well, it is slightly different…but not much!
First off, alcohol is used in small quantities for medicinal wines – in Chinese medicine we see alcohol as a way of promoting circulation and warming the body up when it is Cold. But when drinking alcohol for pleasure, Chinese medicine also classifies different types of alcohol in different ways, which is helpful if you do choose to have a drink. At least choose something that isn’t going to upset your applecart!
Chinese medicine considers beer mostly Damp, Cold and Bitter. Those types of classifications affect your digestion through turning down your digestive fire (this could cause reflux or bloating), or putting a dampener on your digestion (food just sitting in your stomach).
If you are prone to feeling bloated, carrying extra fluid and feeling “foggy-headed” beer may not be the best choice for you, as it may exacerbate those feelings. Beer is better consumed by those who are often “hot” or on hot summer days.
Spirits are considered dispersing, they move “stuckness”, known as stagnation in Chinese medicine. They are very heating, so over-consumption of spirits can cause too much heat to rise. Think of such things as acid reflux, diarrhoea, headaches at the top of your head, and emotions such as quick anger.
Due to their “heaty” nature, spirits are better consumed in cooler weather, and not by those who are prone to being hot and having quick tempers.
Wine is mostly considered to be warm, with red wine being a little warmer than white wine. Although it is not hot, wine is still dispersing and stimulating, so is an acceptable choice with food – helps the digestion work better according to Chinese medicine.
Wine is still considered to create substantial heat if over-consumed – similar to spirits.
Although Chinese medicine considers that alcohol can be damaging, as in all things in Chinese medicine food therapy, there should be a balance. A little bit consumed in moderation is acceptable. But there are no real definites in Chinese medicine, every person is different, and most certainly you don’t want to get “heaty” – that is bad for your digestion and consumes your body’s fluids.
Where do you sit with drinking alcohol? I’m somewhere between the east and the west. I think that there is certainly place for a celebratory beverage for a special occasion or important moment, but if you are having to seriously think about how much you are drinking each week and wondering if you are falling in the guidelines, Houston we have a problem.
Dry July - good time to go dry
As I write this, it is Dry July here in Australia – a perfectly acceptable time to try not drinking any alcohol, as you are free from the social “norms” and no-one looks at you sideways when you don’t have a drink. A simple wink and the words “Dry July” and you’re left alone.
But what about dry-always? If you drink alcohol regularly, there is a good chance you are unaware of just how much you are consuming – and for what? Why do you drink alcohol? Although it can take the edge off a beast of a day, so can a good brisk walk, a meditation or just a plain good chat with a friend.
Although Chinese medicine considers a little alcohol to be helpful here and there, it really is in tiny amounts. Chinese medicine agrees with the west that consuming alcohol sets you up for a host of digestive problems including acid reflux, sluggish digestion, diarrhoea, constipation and hangovers.
Regular over-consumption of alcohol sets the stage for chronic health problems such as cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health challenges.
Are you ready to go dry? Do you want a hand to do this? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how Chinese medicine can help.