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Updated 06 October 2015

The A-Z of alcohol

Wine and other alcoholic drinks can add a lot of zest to your life and, like good food, should be enjoyed. When paired with the right food, magic happens!

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But, alcohol needs to be treated with respect and used in such a way that it makes a positive contribution to your body, mind and wellbeing. As wonderful as it may be, alcohol is an intoxicant and should be enjoyed with caution.    

Here’s what you should know about alcohol . . .

The chemistry of alcohol

Alcohol is produced when yeast is used to ferment carbohydrates, turning the sugars into energy and two waste products, ethanol and carbon dioxide. The fermented product is either used in its whole form, e.g. wine or beer, or distilled to produce spirits.  

Beer and wine retain some of the plant’s nutrients (e.g. the B vitamins in beer), whereas spirits are generally low in nutrients and somewhat lower in kilojoules (energy) than wine and beer.

Read: Thousands of UK lives lost to drink

The breakdown of alcohol

Alcohol is a toxin to the body. Once ingested, it needs to be removed as quickly as possible. For this process to be efficient, enzymes have to transform alcohol into an intermediate metabolite called acetaldehyde.  

This first phase takes place primarily in the stomach before the breakdown products are moved to the liver.

In large amounts, acetaldehyde is highly toxic (think hangover symptoms). So, in the second phase, the liver converts it into harmless by-products. It takes a minimum of eight hours for alcohol to be safely removed from the body.

The upside of alcohol

Alcohol has been used for centuries as an invaluable medical tool. It’s a relaxant and sedative, and acts as a natural antibiotic and pain reliever.

Some forms of alcohol can be a valuable source of complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Beer, for example, is fermented with hops, which helps to regulate blood sugar and fat levels. In addition to the B vitamins, Guinness is also an impressive source of iron.

Wine, especially red wine, is also rich in powerful antioxidants (such as reseveratrol), which counteract free-radical damage, helping to prevent heart disease and ageing.

Other alcohol formulations act as digestives, either to spark the digestive fire prior to eating (e.g. Angstrom bitters) or to ease the digestive process after eating (e.g. peppermint liqueur).

The downside of alcohol

Importantly, alcohol is good for you only when consumed in moderation. Alcohol above safe limits acts as a toxin and a potential carcinogen (i.e. it may cause cancer).

A few of its negative effects include:

1.) The hangover
The body's way of warning you that you’ve crossed the line. Your body suffers with toxic side effects, e.g. headaches, nausea, diarrhoea, weakness and decreased brain function.

2.) Malnutrition and loss of nutrients
Alcohol leads to the elimination of important vitamins and minerals that your body needs to fight infections, handle stress and prevent ageing. This may lead to serious deficiencies in the long term, especially if you don’t follow a healthy diet.

Nutrients that are lost during excess alcohol consumption include water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, that contribute to immunity and wellbeing and magnesium, which assists with the absorption of calcium, and which helps keep muscles relaxed and the heart functioning optimally

3.) Dehydration
Alcohol causes a loss of fluids and electrolytes. This can lead to dehydration, puffiness, hypertension and water-retention.

Read: Why electrolytes are so important

4.) Loss of brain function
Alcohol has a marked impact on cognitive function, slowly decreasing memory and sharpness, possibly through dehydration, loss of nutrients, the oxidation of fats and a dulling of the senses.

5.) Digestive disturbances
Alcohol slows down the metabolism of food. It can also slowly degrade the lining of the gut, causing some foods to become toxic to the system.   
Those with food intolerances need to choose their tipple carefully. Because alcohol primarily uses grain as a substrate, wheat- and gluten-sensitive people may be affected.

Due to the process of fermentation and use of yeasts, alcohol (especially wine and beer) can also be detrimental to the gut flora, especially when Candida albicans (thrush) is already a problem in the body.

6.) Weight gain
Alcohol generally has minimal nutritional value, yet is often overlooked as a very high source  of calories (one glass of wine/half a beer /a small glass of spirits = 5 teaspoons of butter in terms of kilojoules).

It’s virtually impossible to try to lose weight while consuming alcohol. Alcohol disrupts the body's delicate balance of nutrients, fluids and hormones – and the vital body functions needed for fat loss to occur. In this way, alcohol blocks the body from burning fat and accessing fat for energy.

Because alcohol slows down the rate of protein synthesis, drinking alcohol is also counter-intuitive when it comes to the burning of fat and building of muscle. The body first needs to be well-hydrated for muscle building and fat burning.    

Alcohol also markedly reduces the production of protein up to four hours after consumption. There’s also some concern that testosterone, which helps burn fat and build muscle mass, can be diminished by the long-term use of alcohol.

Alcohol furthermore boosts the stress hormone cortisol, which also happens to be a fat-creating hormone.  Cortisol breaks down muscle and retains fat. Less muscle mass results in slower metabolism and easier weight gain.  

Read: Binge drinking may weaken immune system

Risky users

Some people are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, and should therefore take extra care. These groups include:

1. Women:
Men produce more of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach and liver. Women rely primarily on their livers to metabolise alcohol and are therefore more susceptible to the effects of excess drinking.

2. Age: With increasing age, the body's capacity to clear away free radicals and toxins diminishes.

3. Ethnicity:
It’s only through time and adaption that the human body has learnt to metabolise alcohol. Some population groups (especially the Asian populations) still lack the enzyme that breaks down alcohol. High levels of acetaldehyde in the blood after alcohol consumption often cause redness, flushing and dizziness in Asian people.

4. Diabetics:
Alcohol disrupts the control of blood glucose. It’s best for diabetics to avoid alcohol, or to take great care in terms of choice of alcohol, food intake and monitoring of blood-glucose levels when drinking.

Those with high levels of toxins: People who are on medication, smokers, and those with hormone irregularities, signs of an impaired liver, illness or malnutrition should avoid or limit their use of alcohol.  

The right support

A nutritious diet is essential to ensure the quick removal of toxins. A few tips:

- Antioxidants are needed for optimal liver function, so try to eat as many brightly coloured and varied fruits and vegetables as possible.
- Vegetables from the brassica family are important as they assist directly with the second phase of detoxification. Enjoy kale, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts as often as possible.
- If you’re sensitive to wheat/gluten, it’s important to pay attention to your choice of alcohol (most spirits and beer use grain as their substrate).  If you’re sensitive to yeast, eat less cheese, bread and vinegar, and pay attention to your choice of alcohol (steer clear of wine and beer). If you’re sensitive to chemicals, choose sulphur-free organic wine. If you’re sensitive to sugar, choose a sugar-free mixer or use sparkling water with freshly squeezed apple or pomegranate juice, or lemon with xylitol.
- Protect your digestive tract by keeping your gut lining intact (avocado and papaya are good). Also eat a lot of fibre (e.g. psyllium husks) and get enough probiotics (e.g. yoghurt) and prebiotics (e.g. cabbage, garlic, sauerkraut, kimchi, live yoghurt and kombucha).
- Avoid all refined carbohydrates and extra sugars. Use fruit as your sweetener and wholegrain foods as your starch to top up your B-vitamin levels.
- Keep up those vitamin C levels with plenty of lemon, kiwi fruit, chilli, strawberries and peppers.
- Maintain optimal magnesium levels by making dark green, leafy vegetables a priority in your diet.  
- Protect your brain with healthy fats such as those in seeds, coconut, avocado and fish.  
- Eat liver-promoting foods such as artichokes, grapefruit, turmeric, beetroot, dandelion, chicory, alfalfa sprouts, lemon and apple cider vinegar.
- Hydrate with pure water (avoid caffeine) and enjoy water-based foods such as watermelon, celery and cucumber.
- Kickstart your other detoxification mechanisms: take magnesium-rich Epsom salt baths, sweat regularly (e.g. with exercise, hot yoga or a sauna), and drink sufficient water to increase urination.
- Find ways to unwind and better handle stress, with exercise, outdoor walks, reading, and Pilates.
- Talk to your doctor, alternative-health practitioner, nutritionist or dietician if your body needs extra support in the form of a multivitamin.
- Consider other herbal and superfood options for liver detoxification, e.g. milk thistle or alkalising green superfood powders, as well as anti-anxiety support with herbs such as ashwagandha.

Read: Binge drinking more likely to kill older people

And then, in terms of alcohol

- Stick to a maximum of 1 - 2 alcohol units per day to give your body time to eliminate the toxic by-products.
- Find an alcoholic drink that agrees with you, e.g. a clean spirit such as whiskey or a sulphur-free wine. Work out how much alcohol your body can tolerate. Remember this level may change, depending on your circumstances (e.g. what you’ve eaten during the day or whether you’re on medication).
- Be careful of adding fizzy drinks to spirits (e.g. in cocktails), as this speed up the absorption of alcohol.
- Make sure alcohol is taken with food, or after you’ve had something to eat.
- Have “rest days” in between, so that your body can restore and cleanse itself.

Read More:
Long working hours linked to alcohol abuse risk
Medication may curb desire for alcohol
Alcohol blackouts common in UK teens



About the author:

Andrea Jenkins is a South African nutritional therapist, trained in the UK at the internationally recognised Patrick Holford Institute of Optimum Nutrition. She is a recognised member of the South African Association for Nutritional Therapy

 
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