The Impacts of Alcohol on Your Health: Ask the Dietitian

Are you curious about a dietitian’s take on the impacts of alcohol on your health? Alcohol is a substance that is widely drunk across the world.

Whether you are celebrating a birthday, attending a wedding, or simply going out for dinner, alcohol is offered at countless restaurants and sold at almost every grocery store.

But what impact is this substance having on your overall health? One of my jobs as a dietitian is to educate my nutrition clients on alcohol intake and how it could be affecting their health goals. 

Keep reading to learn more about how alcohol influences your body, including its impact on weight loss, athletic performance, and sleep quality. I also provide you with alcohol dosages and guidelines to follow if you do decide to drink. 

Looking to binge more health content? Make sure to check out my post on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport or RED-S!

Basics of Alcohol

Alcohol is an organic compound that is produced by the natural fermentation of sugars. Ethanol is the kind of alcohol that is safe for us humans to drink. 

The rate at which your body absorbs alcohol will depend on a variety of factors. It is important to note that alcohol is absorbed quickest when you drink it on an empty stomach. 

About 95% of alcohol is metabolized inside your body in your liver, and the rest comes out in your urine. 

Before alcohol gets metabolized, it is distributed throughout the water in your body to your tissues, including your heart, brain, lungs, and muscles. 

Here is a brief overview of ways alcohol can impact your body:

  • Alcohol is known as a sedative and mild anesthetic, meaning it helps your body relax and blocks pain.
  • It triggers a release of neurotransmitters called dopamine and serotonin aka your feel-good chemicals.
  • Alcohol may cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, flushing, sweating, visual impairments, unsteadiness, slurred speech, and more. 

Impacts of Alcohol on Your Health

Because alcohol releases two toxins called acetaldehyde and acetic acid, it is considered a toxin. When overconsumed, your liver can’t keep up, and alcohol can negatively impact many parts of your body. 

Diseases linked to alcohol consumption include:

  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gastritis
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome

Chronic disease shouldn’t be your only consideration when talking about alcohol. It can also have lasting impressions on your weight loss goals, athletic performance, and sleep quality. 

Let’s dive deeper into these three next! 

Alcohol and Weight Loss

Many people are curious about how alcohol can impact their weight loss goals. After all, if you are on a weight loss journey, it is essential to be aware of how your drinking habits may influence your weight. 

There is no question that reducing the amount of alcohol you drink can be beneficial for weight loss

Alcohol contains seven calories per gram; many call these “empty calories” because they aren’t giving you much nutritional benefits. 

In addition to the calories in the alcohol itself, you have to keep in mind whatever mixers you are using as well. Drink mixers are often filled with refined sugars, which can start to add up in calories. 

If you are repeatedly throwing back margaritas at the bar, those calories and grams of sugar are going to compound on one another and potentially take you out of your calorie deficit.

A calorie deficit means you are eating fewer calories than you are exerting and is important for weight loss. When you drink extra calories from alcohol, it is easy to fall out of your calorie deficit and start gaining weight rather than losing. 

Another factor to consider is when you are drinking, your decision-making skills become impaired. This leads some people to binge on foods and overeat foods they normally wouldn’t, such as fast food and junk food. 

So, what if you do decide to drink? My best advice for weight loss is to choose mixer options that are lower in calories and sugar, such as lime juice or sparkling water. A glass of red wine can also be a good, weight-loss-friendly drink option. 

Alcohol and Athletic Performance

Now, especially if you are an athlete or an avid exerciser, you may be wondering about how alcohol impacts athletic performance. 

How alcohol affects your individual performance will depend on the quantity, your demographic, and the type of exercise you are completing. 

Overall, research has confirmed that short-term alcohol use impairs motor skills, hydration status, and aerobic performance.

It is definitely less common to drink alcohol before you perform or train, but it is used widely used as a “celebratory drink” afterward. 

However, drinking alcohol after events isn’t ideal. It has been shown to negatively influence recovery progress, making it more likely that you will feel sore and recover slower. The reason for this is that alcohol dehydrates your body even further, delaying your recovery time. 

If you do choose to drink after a workout or event, make sure you are rehydrating with extra electrolytes and fluids. Hydration mixes such as Liquid IV can help replenish your levels and help you with some of the effects (but not all!).

Can Alcohol Impact Your Sleep?

Another area of your health that alcohol may have an effect on is your sleep. I’m sure you are aware of how important a quality night’s rest is for your overall health and longevity. 

Getting adequate sleep protects you against chronic disease, supports weight loss, improves athletic performance, and much more! 

So, what impact does alcohol have on sleep? While alcohol does make you feel relaxed and potentially “sleepy,” it actually has a negative effect on your sleep cycle. 

When your blood alcohol levels are high before bed, your sleep cycle gets disrupted and leads to poorer quality of sleep. In turn, you end up feeling more sleepy and sluggish when you wake up.

If you have drunk alcohol in the past, you probably know this feeling! The day after drinking can hit you hard, and it is likely you’ll rely on caffeine to help power you through your day. 

However, this can be a vicious cycle that can have lasting impressions on your health. Chronic sleep deprivation and insomnia are serious issues, and consistently using alcohol will only make this worse. 

If you do drink, try to leave as much time as you can between when you drink and when you fall asleep. This allows your body to metabolize the alcohol, and it is less likely that it will disturb your REM or deep sleep. 

Alcohol Dosages and Recommendations

The point of this article is not to discourage you from stopping drinking entirely! Alcohol can be enjoyed in moderation if you choose to do so. 

That being said, there are certain dosages and guidelines that should be followed if you want to have minimal impacts on your health.

Alcohol intake guidelines:

  • For women: 1 drink or less/day
  • For men: 2 drinks or less/day

What is considered one drink of alcohol? One alcoholic beverage is equivalent to a 12 oz glass of beer, ~5 oz pour of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (vodka, tequila, etc). 

Heavy drinking is associated with a whole host of health problems. Heavy drinking in women would be classified as having seven or more drinks per week, and in men having 14 or more drinks per week.

As a health professional, I personally wouldn’t recommend drinking every day of the week. Limiting your intake to a few drinks a week or for special occasions will be more beneficial for your health!

The Bottomline

As an alcohol drinker, it is important to make an informed decision about the amount you decide to drink. If you have weight loss or athletic goals, you may want to consider drinking less alcohol and being more strategic about your intake. 

Here are a few key takeaways from this article:

  • Alcohol is considered a toxin and should be consumed in moderate amounts, which is 1 drink or less a day for women and 2 drinks or less a day for men. 
  • Going above these guidelines can have negative effects on your athletic performance and overall sleep quality. 
  • Alcohol can hinder your weight loss goals if you aren’t using it strategically and in moderation. 
  • It is up to you to make informed choices when it comes to drinking for your health! 

Are you looking for support in other areas of your health? Do you feel overwhelmed with all the nutrition information out there and don’t know where to start? My 1:1 nutrition coaching is a great option for you!

Head over to my services page to learn more about how to work with myself and my team. There is no better time to invest in your health!