How to toast without getting (too) toasted

Carly Sachs

The proverbial “eat, drink, and be merry,” isn’t so simple when it comes to alcohol consumption because of all the conflicting information about alcohol and health. Here’s a straightforward guide to what alcohol does to the body.

Alcohol and the digestive system

Your body treats alcohol like an unwanted invasion, that’s why it’s called an “intoxicant.” On a molecular  level, your body is essentially attacking and deconstructing the alcohol. So the body sends enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH) to combat the intruder. Men make this class of enzymes more quickly than women. Because of this, women often metabolize alcohol more slowly than men.

Regardless of gender, one thing that slows down the body’s absorption of alcohol is drinking on a full stomach. When the belly is full of food, alcohol stays in the stomach instead of moving to the small intestine, where it is more quickly absorbed.

Genetics, along with  gender, influence the production of ADH, including alcohol metabolism, and even the risk of developing alcoholism. Moving forward, companies like 23andMe will begin offering health data linked to known genetic causes.

Another thing you can do is change what you mix your cocktails with — alcohol mixed with carbonated beverages creates extra pressure in your stomach, and this can cause it to be absorbed faster.

Alcohol and the nervous system

Alcohol depresses the system by interfering with chemical neurotransmitter signals, in particular, Gamma-Aminobutryric Acid (GABA). As alcohol depresses the system, communication between your brain cells becomes increasingly impaired. So if you’ve ever said the phrase, “What was I thinking last night?” now you know why your brain didn’t respond the way it normally would. In this situation, the best plan is to either drink less so that your body and brain can have productive conversations or to minimize drinking so that you are in the safety of your own home with trusted friends, or practice the buddy system with a friend who is not drinking who will help you stay in line when out on the town.

Alcohol and the endocrine system

Alcohol inhibits the functioning of this system, which is responsible for growth, maintaining metabolism and moods. Alcohol can affect the functions of the glands that release hormones, and the tissues where the hormones are sent. This can cause weakening of the bones, decreased production of testosterone and acne.

Is alcohol good for you?

You’ve probably read some of the studies that suggest alcohol comes in peace and offers healthful benefits for the body. Chemicals such as flavonoids and resveratrol in red wine help relax the body, which lowers blood pressure (which is why the medical community has said one glass a day is fine), there’s been debate about whether this is actually beneficial because often one drink leads to another. Too much alcohol can slow down the heart, which can decrease the amount of nutrients and oxygen you receive, and cause liver damage over the longer term.

Studies also show that people who regularly and moderately imbibe live longer. However, sociologists say drinking is often a social activity, and more human companionship, not alcohol, may be the more direct cause of longevity.

Here are a few tips to imbibe with balance

  • If you consume large amounts of alcohol, eat beforehand. It may also be helpful to find out when, where, and why you are drinking the most and make a plan to cut back alcohol consumption.
  • Moderate heavy drinking to more reasonable amounts (when possible). Reason will depend on the individual, but a standard equation is one drink per hour. This means going out without pre-gaming.
  • Plan a mocktail party, or at least get one buddy to commit to being sober with you on an outing.
  • Focus on choosing a balanced diet that helps the body’s systems function at their most ideal levels. Adding a healthy practice is easier than trying to eliminate an unhealthy one cold turkey.

Photo credit – Jing a Ling on Flickr /CC by 2.0