How drinking alcohol really affects our bodies
I’ve been doing a lot of research on this lately and it’s…eye-opening.
CW: This essay dives into sensitive topics like alcohol and addiction. If this is something that is triggering for you, feel free to skip it. Next week we will focus on zero-proof drink recommendations and mocktails.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my alcohol habits lately. In this stage of my life, I’m finding it’s pretty common to drink every day—pouring wine at dinner with a friend, sipping on a cocktail at a work event, or even cracking open a beer while I’m cooking at home. While I told my doctor I was limiting myself to four a week, truthfully, I was averaging seven to 14 drinks a week…and sometimes even more if I had big weekend plans.
Unsurprisingly, these numbers are typical for alcohol consumption; the average American consumes 1.35 alcoholic beverages a day, and 9.5 drinks a week. Keep in mind these numbers were collected in 2017, and data shows alcohol consumption was up by 39% in 2020, and for mothers with children under the age of 5, it was up 323%.
Like many others during the pandemic, I was turning to a daily glass of wine (or two) to get me through the horrifying reality we were living in. I actually wasn’t drinking alcohol when the world first shut down because I was fasting for Lent, but that quickly changed. I felt I “deserved” that glass, so I just gave up and popped the cork. Plus, after watching countless TikTok videos of people pounding alcohol throughout 2020, I knew I wasn’t the only one. It just seemed like the thing you did to cope.
And that’s what got me in the first place. When I realized that I was turning to a literal substance that is destroying my body in order to cope with a stressful moment, I knew it just wasn’t okay anymore. Countless hours of research and contemplation later, I’ve come to an interesting fork in the road. And I know I can’t turn back.
Before really diving in, I need to be extra clear: What you decide to do with your body is your choice. My story with alcohol is my alone, and I am sharing my research without any intention of telling you what to do. My hope is that you’ll walk away from this enlightened and aware, and come to your own conclusion on alcohol consumption.
Alcohol and our health
If wine is a major player in the Mediterranean Diet, which is considered the healthiest eating style to follow, then it must be good for you…right?
I am 100% guilty of writing stories about the “amazing effects” of drinking wine—like how it supposedly benefits your heart health, supplies a boost of antioxidants, reduces blood pressure, and so on. Because of this, I truly, deeply believed that having a glass of red wine at night was benefiting my health, so I continued to drink it in excess. Even if that meant I woke up to terrible headaches every morning with a puffy face and stained purple lips.
I would easily allow these positive benefits to outweigh the reality of what drinking alcohol was doing for my health, simply because that’s what everyone was doing around me. Drinking is so ingrained in our culture that not drinking is seen as abnormal and mindboggling.
Recently I finished Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, and learned a lot about what is said and not said about drinking. We are encouraged to consume alcohol with slogans like “mommy juice” and “rosé all day,” yet we’re not outright told about what alcohol truly is and how it affects our bodies long term.
You see, alcoholic beverages contain ethanol, an organic chemical compound made from plant materials produced by the fermentation of sugars. It is considered a psychoactive drug (causing an altered perception of mood, consciousness, cognition, and behavior), and is commonly used as fuel—like in cars and even rockets.
Whitaker put it perfectly: “In other words, we drink—for fun—the same thing we use to make rocket fuel, house paint, antiseptics, solvents, perfumes, and deodorants, and to denature (i.e., take away the natural properties of, or kill) living organisms.”
When I realized that I was drinking the same substance that was fueling cars, my entire mindset shifted. It’s been difficult to pick up a glass without thinking of a pump at a gas station.
Now knowing this, I dove deeper down the rabbit hole, learning more about what was really happening to my body every time I took a sip. And it has been enough to make me seriously reconsider drinking at all.
Here’s the data point that really got to me—alcohol is considered the most harmful substance for our health. Even more so than narcotics. Researchers from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) measured common substances for the harm they cause for individuals, ranging from 0 (no harm) to 100 (greatest possible harm). Alcohol ranked the highest at 72, logging in at three times more harmful than cocaine (27) and tobacco (26). Heroin was ranked second-most harmful at 55.
But how can it be so harmful when so many people drink it regularly and, at times, it seems harmless?
ISCD researchers point out that alcohol consumption has been linked to over 60 different kinds of diseases.
Drinking wine has been previously believed to benefit your heart health, but recent research shows even “light” drinking increases cardiovascular disease risk.
Some may think alcohol benefits sleep, but it does the opposite. Light drinking (less than one a day) can decrease your sleep quality by 9.3%, and moderate drinking (one to two a day) decreases it by 24%. The liver is working to metabolize alcohol, which is a slow process and causes disruptions in your REM cycles.
Speaking of metabolism…alcohol is prioritized in your liver once consumed. The body has to work to neutralize and eliminate the substance, and it will prioritize this process over anything else you consume in order to get rid of it quickly. If you drink more than what the body can process, your liver could become damaged.
Drinking too much alcohol overwhelms the gastrointestinal tract and damages it, causing intestinal inflammation and numerous digestive issues. The stomach lining will become inflamed, leading to abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting—and regular heavy consumption can result in even worse stomach conditions like ulcers and anemia.
As you can see…it’s a lot to take in. Remember, I’m not writing all of this to try and be alarmist and turn you off. But I just think it’s an important reminder, especially because we do live in an alcohol-obsessed culture.
I’ve been sober curious for a while.
The term “sober curious” means I’ve been toying with the idea of going sober, but haven’t exactly pulled the plug. Here’s the truth—I don’t think I can give up the celebratory aspect of it. For example, last week I wrote about how I met up with some girlfriends in the park to eat pizza and drink bubbly. We were celebrating our friend getting a pretty huge new job, so we sipped to celebrate.
Right now, where I’m at in my life, it’s hard to imagine not having those moments. Sure, I don’t need to have alcohol to celebrate with my friend, I know that. But right now, this is what I’m leaning towards because it works for me. I plan on eliminating alcohol from my diet, with the exception of major celebrations. “Getting to the weekend” doesn’t count, even though that does feel like a celebration sometimes.
Ever since making this decision, I have found my health—and life—have significantly improved. Do you know how good it feels to wake up after a night out and feel well rested and not hungover? It’s liberating.
Stay tuned for part two!
Next week, I’ll be writing about zero-proof drinking. This essay got kind of long, so I’m splitting this into two parts. We’ll dive into the rise of zero-proof culture with some fun recommendations (and recipes!) from yours truly.