It’s been one of those days. Work has been unrelenting. The kids are being kids - also unrelenting. There’s still 10 more things to do before you can sit down on have five minutes - just five minutes! - to yourself. All of that and it’s still only Tuesday. A glass of wine or two will carry your through to that much-needed moment on the sofa.
Whenever I give a talk to women about health there are always giggles and nodding heads when I put up a slide about wine as a coping strategy. After having observed that response more times than I can recall, it got me thinking. We need to talk about wine.
I don’t mean what varietal you like to drink and which wineries are your favourites (although I have to say I am currently a big fan of pinot noirs from Central Otago and the Mornington Peninsula!). No, I want to talk about how that much-loved and favoured coping strategy is affecting your health.
Many women use wine as a way to unwind toward the end of a tough day. I have done this in the past. One Asahi beer at 5pm to get through kid dinner, bath and bed routine did the trick. Relying on alcohol to help you unwind is a very common coping strategy and initially it feels like it’s ok and all is good in the world, our at least bearable.
I’m not suggesting that anyone stops drinking (although recent research showed that there was no safe dose of alcohol), but being better informed about its effects can help use to make better decisions about it.
Over time drinking regularly causes health problems.
1. Regular drinking hurts your liver and your gut
We are all aware of the damage to the liver that alcohol can cause. Damage and death to liver cells happens, impaired ability for your liver to detoxify, your gut lining gets damaged, good gut bacteria get wiped out, inflammation is created and free radical damage happens. This leads to fatty liver and an imbalance of your gut microbiome. The result is systemic inflammation. Not a good place to be.
2. Alcohol causes nutrient deficiencies
Drinking alcohol regularly depletes:
Vitamin A, C, D, E & K
Vitamin B1, B6 & B12
That is a long list of nutrients potentially lost. Each of those nutrients plays not just one crucial role around the body but many roles. Once you become deficient in just one or two of those nutrients deficiency health problems crop up.
3. Your ability to cope with stress decreases
Over time alcohol also causes depletion of important nutrients that are important for a biochemical pathway called methylation. Alcohol depletes folate, vitamin B12 and zinc levels in the body and the methylation pathway uses these nutrients to help the body cope with stress and balance mood. Methylation is involved in the production, release and breakdown of important neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, dopamine and adrenaline. Slow methylation due to a loss of co-factors leads to mood problems and a reduced ability to cope with stress.
4. Alcohol causes anxiety
That sounds counterintuitive. Alcohol is meant to relax you right? And it does initially, however long term drinking causes a down regulation of GABA, meaning your body’s ability to make GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, diminishes. Instead we see more glutamate and NMDA being made which makes us feel more anxious.
5. Alcohol destroys neurons
Particularly the ones involved in memory formation. You hear stories about people who drank so much in one session that they could not remember anything that happened. That is an extreme example of alcohol killing nerve cells in your brain.
6. Alcohol causes insomnia
Drinking within six hours of bedtime can increase wakefulness in the second half of sleep time. And if you snore or have sleep apnea sleep disruption can be worse. Alcohol can cause a narrowing of air passages so you don’t breathe as well when asleep.
So, where’s the happy medium here?
Getting into the habit of not drinking during the week (say, Sunday to Thursday) and choosing to drink only on the weekends or just at social occasions to a moderate level (try two to three drinks) is a happy balance.
You could also just be more mindful of the effects describe above and adjust your intake to suit. Ideally we would not drink at all, but where’s the fun in that?