I don’t know if you’ve heard, but cutting down on alcohol, or avoiding it altogether, is totally trending right now.
It seems as if health experts everywhere are speaking out about the harms of alcohol on our brains and bodies. And it’s not just heavy drinking that’s the problem—moderate drinking has its risks too.
I know when I drink alcohol, my sleep is thrown off, I feel tired the next day, and my workouts aren’t as strong.
When I don’t drink (which is most of the time), I sleep awesomely and wake up feeling refreshed, energized, and excited to hit the gym the next day.
As the first month of the new year comes to a close and movements like “Dry January” wind down, I thought it would be a good time to share some reasons why minimizing alcohol intake might be a lifestyle worth adopting for good.
Before we jump in, I first want to say that I’m not trying to scare you away from drinking. I’m just presenting the evidence to plant a seed of awareness of the potential harms that come with it.
Alcohol Might Be Fun, But Its Effects on the Body and Brain Are Not
Social drinking is a widely accepted part of our culture. Family gatherings, catching up with friends, and special events are often centered on alcohol.
What most people don’t know is that moderate-to-heavy drinking can cause unwanted side effects like dysbiosis, fatty liver, cognitive decline, and even cancer. After all, alcohol comes from ethanol that is metabolized into acetaldehyde, a poison that wreaks havoc on our gut and cellular health.
Let’s peel back the layers a little further on this.
1. Alcohol Changes the Gut Microbiome
We can’t talk about the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain and body until we understand its impact on the gut microbiome. Alcohol feeds our bad bacteria and wipes out our good bacteria, which leads to inflammation that weakens the intestinal barrier, resulting in a leaky gut.
Leaky gut causes bad bacteria, endotoxins, and foreign materials to pass through the intestinal tract and enter the bloodstream, which is not where we want them to be! The immune system responds by making inflammatory cytokines that damage our cells and organs, most notably the liver and the brain.
A study found that a single episode of binge drinking (i.e., five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women in two hours) resulted in high blood endotoxin levels (1), a sign that gut bacteria are in the bloodstream.
And that was only one instance. Imagine what happens when alcohol is consumed on a regular basis: our risk of Alzheimer’s and certain cancers goes way up.
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2. The Link between Alcohol and Alzheimer’s Disease
Alcohol is a neurotoxin. It crosses the blood-brain barrier and suppresses neurons involved in memory formation, decision-making, and social behavior. The relaxing effect of alcohol often drives people to keep drinking, but it can harm your brain in the long run.
A study published in The Journals of Gerontology reported a 57 percent increase in the risk of dementia in moderate-to-heavy drinkers and a five-year earlier onset of diagnosis (2). So what’s responsible for alcohol’s adverse effects on the brain?
I’ve learned from Dr. Andrew Huberman that moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption changes the physical structure of our brains and shrinks our brain volume, specifically the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Brain-health expert Dr. Daniel Amen has analyzed over 200,000 brain scans and notes reduced blood flow to the brain in heavy drinkers—a future predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, daily alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce neuroplasticity by nearly 40 percent in a mouse model (3).
The average dose of alcohol consumed in populations that go on to develop Alzheimer’s is 14 or more drinks per week, according to the research (4). This is pretty concerning given that the CDC’s Guidelines for Alcohol consider moderate alcohol intake (seven drinks per week for women, 14 drinks per week for men) safe for the general population.
3. Even Moderate Drinking Can Increase Cancer Risk
According to a study published in the Lancet, 750,000 global cancer cases in 2020 could be attributed to alcohol consumption. While heavy drinking accounted for most, light-to-moderate drinking accounted for about 100,000 cases (5).
Acetaldehyde, the toxic metabolite of alcohol, is chiefly responsible for this link. It damages cells and alters gene expression to favor the development of tumors. Alcohol also changes estrogen metabolism and increases circulating estrogen levels, a prominent risk factor for breast cancer.
A study that followed over one million women in the UK found that for each additional alcoholic drink consumed daily, a woman’s risk of breast cancer increased by 12 percent (6). Another study found a 30 percent increased breast cancer risk in women who had 3–9 alcoholic beverages per week and a 60 percent higher risk in amounts exceeding that. (7).
My friend and colleague Dr. Elizabeth Boham attributes this to the stress alcohol puts on the liver and that it tanks our B vitamins necessary for methylation and removing excess estrogen. Genetics also play a role in the degree of breast cancer risk separate and related to alcohol metabolism.
And guys, don’t think you’re off the hook! That same study published in the Lancet found that of the nearly three-quarter million cancer diagnoses in 2020, men accounted for over 75 percent of them, mainly mouth and throat, liver, and colorectal cancer.
What about the Alleged Benefits of Alcohol?
On the other side of things, some experts believe that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption could be beneficial from a hormetic standpoint. Ben Greenfield mentioned this in a post recently, sharing that nearly every Blue Zone consumes alcohol in moderation. He proposes that this could be one potential explanation behind their longer life spans.
Hormesis is the idea that a small dose of a mild stressor promotes resilience and turns on longevity pathways. This effect is well established with sauna use, cold therapy, and eating polyphenol-rich foods, but with alcohol, the research is less clear. We can’t say for sure whether it’s the moderate drinking or the combination of community, a healthy diet, and regular movement that promotes longevity in these areas.
Dr. Vinay Prasad, someone I deeply admire for his nuanced take on important health topics, recently wrote a Substack article on why the science guiding people’s views on alcohol (good or bad) is “woefully inadequate.” I’m excited to share what I learned from him in this next section.
A Little Perspective on Alcohol from Dr. Vinay Prasad
In the article, Dr. Prasad explains why the research on alcohol can only be taken at face value. He argues that the endpoints in most studies don’t matter and that how long a person lives, how well they live, their own happiness, and the happiness of the people in their lives are the only outcomes that should be measured.
Dr. Prasad also notes there are many variables that both do and don’t involve drinking that can contribute to a person’s disease and mortality risk. For example, the type and quality of alcohol, the climate a person lives in, and drinking with certain foods versus drinking with none are some examples—but these tend to be underplayed or unaccounted for in the research.
I wanted to share Dr. Prasad’s novel take to look at the alcohol argument through a different lens. With that being said, I do think we have to make our own best judgment based on what we know about alcohol’s effects on the body, and generally speaking, everyone in my life, including myself, has greatly benefited from significantly dialing back their overall alcohol intake.
When it comes to chronic disease, minimizing or eliminating processed food and refined sugar tends to get all the attention. Somehow alcohol has been let off the hook, but that doesn’t mean we can give it the green light.
The research on alcohol is still evolving, but it’s safe to say that moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to health risks and challenges that deserve attention. We don’t know everything yet, but having awareness means we can decide what we want our relationship with alcohol to look like.
Something cool I’ve been noticing is more and more people are jumping on the alcohol-free bandwagon. Sober bars and meet-ups are popping up everywhere. Although alcohol-free entertainment is not the norm, I’m hopeful that as more people learn about its risks, they’ll begin to minimize their intake.
Here’s to your health,