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The Truth About Alcohol, Part 1

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The issue of alcohol keeps popping up in my conversations with one-on-one coaching clients and my online course, Fit for Life Foodies. There’s a lot to consider when deciding if you want to incorporate alcohol in your journey for better health—WAY too much for one blog, so this is Part 1 in an exploration of the effects of alcohol on our health, hormones, and for many of you, your quest to lower blood sugar, lose fat, and boost immunity.

 

Please understand that I’m not here to judge or convince you not to drink. After all, you’re a grown-ass person; ultimately, the decision is yours. Although I’m not a beer drinker, I very much enjoy spirits and wine—in fact, I have a dual-zone wine fridge in my kitchen, so my reds and my whites can be stored at the appropriate temperature. Yes, I’M THAT SNOBBY! But it’s crucial for you to understand the reality of what’s happening in your body when you consume alcohol and to acknowledge there is indeed a consequence.

 

First, here’s some science…

 

Did you know alcohol is a “macro,” just like protein, carbs, and fat?

 

Yep! Ethanol alcohol, the type of alcohol we drink, is indeed a macronutrient. However, the term “macronutrient” is misleading because unlike protein, carbs, and fat, alcohol has NO nutrients!

 

We can all admit that consuming alcohol, like sugar, is “empty calories,” right? But what many people don’t know is that alcohol has almost twice as many calories per gram as sugar. So, it’s not just empty calories, it’s the epitome of empty calories!

 

Now I know what you think because I’ve thought it too–if you want to have a cocktail and the alcohol in that cocktail is just empty calories, then all you have to do is cut back on calories somewhere else, right?

 

Okay, yes, but no.

 

The problem is that alcohol is essentially a toxin to the body. Your body wants to process and get rid of that crap ASAP, so much that it focuses all its attention on a four-step process that looks like this:

Ethanol ➡ Acetaldehyde ➡ Acetate ➡ Acetyl-CoA

 

All that acetate and acetyl-CoA showing up in the cells signals the body to put a hard stop on metabolizing anything else, like the pizza you had with your beer, the cheeseboard you had with your wine, or the steak and baked potato you had with your bourbon. The human body preferentially metabolizes alcohol over other macronutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, and fats, effectively reducing the body’s ability to utilize stored body fat for energy.

 

Alcohol is, sadly, a fat-burning suppressor, which means if you’re trying to lose some weight, alcohol is not just contributing to your caloric total and inhibits your ability to burn fat.

 

Alcohol is also “pro-oxidative,” meaning that it increases oxidation in the body. Oxidation happens as our bodies process the oxygen we breathe, and our cells create energy from that oxygen. This, in turn, produces free radicals, which we’ve all heard about in advertisements for skin care products. Free radicals stimulate repair in the body, but an excess of free radicals causes damage or oxidative stress. Signs of oxidative stress are fatigue, memory loss and brain fog, inflammation, muscle and joint pain, increased visual aging like wrinkles and grey hair, high blood sugar and diabetes, and compromised immunity. The last three are enough to motivate me!

 

So, is drinking wine, or alcohol for that matter, bad for blood sugar?

 

Well, yes. And no.

 

Like most things about the human body, it’s complicated.

 

Because alcohol is high in sugar, consumption causes an initial spike. Your body releases insulin to bring this high sugar level down and inhibits the release of more sugar from the liver. This can be especially dangerous if you are already diabetic and using insulin, metformin, or other diabetes medications because it can lead to hypoglycemia or a “crash” in blood sugar. Symptoms include anxiety, fatigue, dizziness, headache, rapid heart rate, shakiness, and excessive sweating.

 

For most people, a glass of wine here and there won’t pose a problem; however, 2-3 glasses of wine or other alcoholic beverages a day will, like anything, have a cumulative effect on your health, mainly if you’ve already gotten the fun lecture from your doctor about your high A1c or fasting blood sugar levels. This is because alcohol consumption will, over time, make your body resistant to the effectiveness of insulin. We do not want to be insulin resistant. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, we want to be insulin sensitive, meaning our bodies only require average to low insulin levels to process the glucose in our blood.

 

In addition to the effects that alcohol may have on insulin resistance, the cumulative effect of alcohol may cause inflammation of the pancreas, where insulin is made. This is likely to happen after many years of moderate drinking, as there may be no initial symptoms to indicate that pancreatic function has been compromised.

 

If you’re in your 50s, 60s, or 70s and have been drinking moderately since you were in your twenties, then you want to consider the possibility of some long-term effects alcohol has had on your health. My best advice is to ensure you have your annual physical and that you have regular lab work done to monitor A1c and fasting blood sugar levels.

 

I’m certainly not saying you should never drink any alcohol ever again–I’m planning on a glass of wine with dinner. But it’s important to understand why alcohol has such an impact on our bodies so that you can make educated decisions. Some foods and drinks don’t make us healthier. That’s OK. Food is not just fuel–it’s part of our family, society, and culture. It’s emotional, nostalgic, and delicious.

 

Of course, the less-healthy foods and drinks you, the less you consume, the better. Only you can determine where you want to draw the line based on your health goals.

 

 

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

HI, I'M CANDACE!

I am a science-based wellness coach with over 30 years of experience specializing in helping people 40+ reduce pain using corrective exercise therapy, get stronger through smart fitness programs, and increase energy and vitality through sustainable nutrition.

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