You're crushed after a long day. It wouldn't be unusual for you to crave some "crushed" grapes, aka wine, (see what I did there?) as a way to relax and unwind. Is it possible to do this while still following a healthy lifestyle? Is that one little glass before (or after) dinner really all that problematic?
I'm going to dig into some research to help explain my answer to these and other questions, which I get a lot of. And I totally get that for a lot of people, the best and most sustainable way to follow a lifestyle program that gives wiggle room for the occasional indulgences such as alcohol. That's a decision I respect and understand.
How Much is Too Much, Really?
Obviously, drinking too much is clearly bad for your health. Even just one binge (let alone chronic alcohol abuse) can lead to a range of deleterious health effects—and I'll get to just a handful of them in a second.
First, let's be clear here about what an actual "binge" means. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a "binge" is considered 5 or more drinks within a 2-hour time period for men, and 4 or more drinks within the same amount of time for women. Essentially, whatever amount of alcohol that brings your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to 0.08 g/dL is considered a binge-worthy amount (and cringe-worthy, dare I say).
Now here's the kicker: it is VERY easy to binge even without realizing that you are or without feeling like you're "drunk".
Think about it:
One serving of wine is 5 fluid ounces. That's not very much—and it certainly doesn't feel or look like very much if you drink your wine out of one of those fancy big glasses! And whether at home or in a restaurant, a typical "serving" of alcohol is almost always way more than that.
My point is, when I hear women say "I only have two glasses of wine a day," I have to wonder if that "two" is actually "four" based on the size of the pour—in which case, these women may be binge drinking by default without even realizing it.
But even letting alone "binge" drinking (and even if you don't drink wine), getting in a habit of drinking one or two *true* servings per day may not be in your best interest. Of course you need to consider your stage of life, specific goals, family history, and other factors, too. But based on personal experience and on the research I've done, I generally take the view that anything more than a true "occasional indulgence" is not a benefit to your health...
...and as we'll see, it could be directly or indirectly harmful instead.
5 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health (Yes, Even Just That "One" Glass of Wine With Dinner)
Now that we've talked about intake, let's get directly to the effects. Getting drunk and hungover are two obvious effects that come with plenty of their own problems, (I think we all have lived that life in undergrad lol) . But let's look at some other ways that alcohol affects you, your health, and your quality of life.
The following list isn't all-inclusive, but I've pulled some of the ones that stick out the most to me personally. Keep in mind that many of these are directly linked with long-term alcohol abuse, but for personal reasons, you may decide (like I have) that even moderate alcohol consumption just isn't worth it to you:
- Increased risk of dementia and brain tissue loss. The impact of this can be seen in older adults especially, but even people in their middle ages.
- Worsened mental health and an increased risk for depression—along with an increased risk of impulsivity and poor decision-making that may lead to regrettable choices and situations that beget even more feelings of depression.
- Increased risk of cancer. This is considered a strong correlation. The more a person drinks and the more consistently they drink over time, the more likely they are to be diagnosed with a variety of cancers, including liver, esophagus, colorectal, and breast. As reported by the NIAAA, one meta-analysis showed that women who drank over 45 grams of alcohol per day (about 3.2 servings—and remember, it is EASY to pour 2+ servings of wine in one glass!) had 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer as nondrinkers.
- Diminished immune system function. One episode of binge drinking can impair your body's defenses and make it harder to fight off infections—even a full 24 hours after getting drunk.
- Impaired hormone regulation. Because alcohol disrupts the communication between the nervous and endocrine systems, drinking can easily lead to or exacerbate problems such as impaired stress management, reproductive problems, and thyroid issues.
Brief Public Service Announcement: I've talked about this before, but I hope it goes without saying that drinking alcohol while pregnant is not something I recommend. Research shared by sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker, author of the great new book Why We Sleep, shows that even just one serving of alcohol can affect a developing fetus's neural development and impair its sleep quality within the womb. Interestingly, research also indicates that infants exposed to alcohol in breast milk also suffer sleep disturbances, so it's wise to stay away from the booze even when you're nursing. I know some of you don't want to hear that, and you don't have to! YOLO- ya know?! But this is my job and I'm just keeping it honest. So if you're going to do it while breastfeeding, maybe pump and dump.
I'll also add a bit of anecdote here: I've seen for many of my clients that alcohol consumption, even if it's "moderate" or "occasional," is a HUGE trigger for other negative consequences, such as poor food choices, impaired sleep, and spousal conflict (or in my case you end up pregnant 4 weeks later-ha, but seriously). So just something else to keep in mind.
But Then Again...
I couldn't talk about alcohol consumption without talking about some of the health benefits that have come up in the literature.
I'll specifically focus on red wine here. Most doctors and researchers agree that if you're going to drink, red wine just about your best option to choose from, mostly because it contains a compound called reservatrol. Plants use it to protect against damaging UV radiation and fight off fungi and bacteria.
Research shows that reservatrol and other compounds in red wine (but not the alcohol itself, importantly) have been associated with the following health benefits in humans:
- Reduced risk cardiovascular disease, largely due to the way it remodels the gut biome
- Increased levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in blood plasma
- Reduced blood pressure and improved blood vessel health (even non-alcoholic wine has been shown to offer this effect)
- Protection against stroke by promoting the proliferation of an enzyme that protect nerve cells
- A potential reduced risk of breast/colon/lung/prostate cancer—BUT the alcohol in wine can easily and often outweigh the cancer-protective benefits of the reservatrol in it
Remember, in virtually all the research cited, health benefits are linked with a moderate consumption of wine. This is defined as up to one serving per day for women and up to two serving per day for men. If you're counting, that's 5 fluid ounces for women and 10 fluid ounces for men.
Know your pours, people! (any past bartenders in the building? just me?!)
Before you toast up your 5 ounce pour, I do think more research needs to be done to clarify the strength of these claims. And of course, reservatrol is also naturally found in the skin of blueberries, grapes, and cranberries...so you can still get this beneficial compound by eating these instead of drinking wine- sooooooo yea :)
One important caveat to know about red wine, however, especially red wine from California: this booze tends to be loaded with glyphosate, that infamous carcinogenic compound found in weed killers like RoundUp. This stuff is no joke: a recent 2019 meta-analysis showed that regular exposure to glyphosate can raise your risk of cancer by over 40 percent.
The Bottoms Up Conclusion
I'm not about to tell you not to drink. In fact once in a while you'll catch me enjoying a rare glass of Champagne myself, Moet anyone? If you decide to drink occasionally in moderation, I don't want you to think that this means you're fated to a future of ill health and disease. There certainly is plenty of evidence to say that moderate drinking may even offer some health benefits- and it can be a good time :)
I DO want us all to realize that alcohol is a drug (I feel like I have to say this). And I believe that it's in our best interest to take the position that every sip of alcohol will affect our bodies in some way and to some degree. If we can remember this, I believe we're far more likely to respect alcohol and use it as responsibly as possible...if we choose to use it at all. Which is 100% your choice! My job is just to inform you, so I promise, no judgement here either way!
If you do choose to drink, you can at least go for the "least impactful" options, including tequila, whiskey, red wine, and champagne. Clearly, I advise staying far far away from sugary mixers and gluten- and carb-heavy beers. I also advise that you truly pay attention to how much you're actually drinking!
And remember: just because there is some evidence to say that moderate drinking may be good for you, this doesn't mean you are doing your health a disservice by opting for the sober route instead. You don't NEED alcohol to be healthy. Repeat: You DO NOT NEED... ok you get it.
Lastly, I'll leave you with a challenge:
The next time you pour yourself a glass of wine (assuming there is a next time), measure out exactly 5 ounces. This simple exercise can really help you gain insight into how much alcohol you're consuming on a regular basis. Just a thought :)