I like to enjoy a glass of red wine or a refreshing cocktail now and again. It’s a great way to relax and always partners well with an awesome meal. But oftentimes, we let one glass turn into two, three to four, and before you know it the whole bottle is gone.
The next day you’re left feeling tired, irritable, and downright lazy.
I’m all for enjoying a drink here and there, but doing it with the knowledge of what’s happening in your body makes for better decisions when you start drinking.
I teamed up with my friend and Registered Dietitian, Stacey Frattinger, to give us the scoop on the impact alcohol has on our overall health and well-being.
The goal of this read is to empower you with a clear understanding of what goes on in your body when alcohol is present so that you can make informed decisions and find the balance that’s right for you.
Take it away, Stacey!
If you like to include alcohol with your meals, have a glass of prosecco at the end of a hard day, or sip a spirit as a way to unwind socially with friends and loved ones, allow me to give you the scoop on what’s happening in your body.
Based upon your own physiological response, you can make a more informed decision around incorporating the foods and beverages that help you to look, feel, and perform at your personal best.
While I don’t like to define food or beverages choices as “good” or “bad”, it is important to be educated on how your own body responds to what you are feeding it in the form of food and drink.
It all starts with moderation—for some, moderation turns to a daily habit as part of the “all or nothing” mentality, while for others, only one or two days of drinking alcohol throws their week off completely. Keep in mind that within the field of nutrition, drinking alcohol in moderation equates to 1 drink (or less) daily, but even small amounts of alcohol can have a much bigger impact on your body and your metabolism.
It can be tricky, but when done properly, you can enjoy the foods you like with the beverages you love and not have to worry so much.
Here’s what happens when you take that first sip of alcohol…
Alcohol enters your bloodstream, and depending on your age, gender, and overall health, it may stay in your bloodstream for hours, and also goes on to impact nearly every organ along the way.
Metabolically, drinking alcohol prevents your body from prioritizing many other processes associated with metabolism. In other words, after your first few sips of alcohol, your body prioritizes alcohol above anything else that may be eaten at the same time.
Your body doesn’t necessarily have a way to store alcohol in cells, unlike the way it can store things like proteins or carbohydrates, so alcohol takes metabolic priority.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty around how alcohol affects things like your liver, it may be more helpful to understand the surprising way alcohol affects your health as part of your metabolic functions.
Oftentimes I’ll encourage individuals to focus on how their metabolism is functioning by assessing things like sleep, mood, hunger, energy, and cravings.
Let’s dive into how alcohol impacts you and your metabolism by going through each of these biofeedback signals!
How alcohol affects sleep…
The way that alcohol impacts sleep specifically has been studied since the 1930s, yet there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. It is pretty well established that the more you drink, the more the structure of your brain can change.
As your brain cells wither away, the inner core of your brain swells, and this leads to things like difficulty in regulating your body temperature and the quality of your sleep. As a result, your body doesn’t get as much “deep sleep” (REM) leading to further exhaustion and slow bodily responses.
For more on how sleep impacts your sleep cycles and stages, or may even lead to insomnia, this post from the Sleep Foundation gives you more insight on sleep patterns.
How alcohol affects your mood…
While you may reach for your favorite alcoholic beverage as a way to enhance your mood or make you “feel better”, alcohol can actually do the exact opposite. Of course, your moods can change depending upon the hours of sleep that you are getting each night, along with the quality of your sleep.
Likewise, shifts in energy can be correlated with ups and downs in mood. If you notice that alcohol negatively impacts your sleep or energy, you should expect to see some changes in mood as well.
Similarly, alcohol can impact your brain’s production of natural “happiness hormones” such as serotonin and dopamine. While it may give you an initial mood boost, as the alcohol wears off you may actually be left feeling more down or depressed.
How alcohol affects your hunger…
You may think that alcohol raises blood sugar, but in actuality, alcohol more often causes low blood sugar.
Sometimes this sets in right away, but it may take up to 24 hours to notice unstable and unpredictable changes in blood sugar, hence unstable and unpredictable changes in hunger.
Alcohol impacts the hormones that are responsible for feeling full and satiated, leading to a more intense feeling of hunger following consumption of alcohol. While this may be true, some may also find that alcohol works as a buffer, causing hunger to decrease.
Pay attention to how your own body responds so you can better understand if alcohol has a significant impact on the stability or presence of more intense hunger throughout the day.
How alcohol affects your energy…
Alcohol changes the rate at which your thoughts and feelings are processed. Since your brain is in charge of communicating with your body at all times, when things slow down in this department, you may feel more sleepy and uncoordinated.
Alcohol is known to be more of a depressant and its sedative qualities may rob you of your energy making you feel more lethargic and drowsy. Let’s not forget that alcohol may also impact your sleep patterns, hence your energy levels, over time as well.
Ann here again—we all know what it feels like not to have the energy we need to get through the day, right? Take a moment to be mindful and recognize that choosing alcohol will likely steal your energy that allows you to make informed decisions.
How alcohol affects your cravings...
Research has actually shown a change in cravings for fatty, greasy foods following a night of drinking. Not only do cravings change the day of your alcoholic indulgences, but if you have the feeling of being hungover or notice that alcohol hasn’t exactly left you feeling good, people may turn to breakfast foods that they may not normally choose.
If you are the type of person that prefers fasting into the morning, or often chooses a higher protein, higher fiber breakfast, notice how alcohol impacts your food choices at meals, including your breakfast the following day. If you find that alcohol changes your cravings, it may be best to avoid or eliminate them accordingly.
A few tips for sippin’…
- Alternate your alcoholic beverage with water.
Have a glass of water before your first drink, have a glass of water following every alcoholic drink after, and notice if that helps with things like your hunger or cravings.
- Count alcohol as your starchy carbohydrate.
If you are going out for a nice dinner, have your protein and veggies and skip the bread basket or potato. Use your alcohol in place of the starchier items and notice if you are able to maintain your weight more easily when including alcohol.
- Snack on healthy, whole foods that you prepped.
Have some healthier options prepped and ready to go when you return home or settle in for the evening. Things like finger veggies with hummus, jerky with mixed nuts, or ½ an apple with string cheese may be enough to help prevent a blood sugar dip, a poor night of sleep, or a change in hunger and cravings when you wake the next day.
- Find a drink that works for you.
If you are a calorie counter, this blog post has everything you need to know about the drinks that pack tons of calories and the ones that spare you a few. It has a great list of your best choices calorically when choosing to incorporate alcohol while elaborating more on what was discussed as part of this post.
Sip smarter this weekend…
There you have it—the basics on alcohol and how it affects your body. If you are currently incorporating alcohol, what can you do to begin to track, and better understand, how alcohol impacts your sleep, hunger, mood, energy, or cravings?
Try these tips out and let me know what you think in the comments below or on my Instagram.