There’s no doubt that heavy drinking is bad for our health. According to the Office for National Statistics there were 7,423 deaths from alcohol misuse in 2020 – a rise of 20% from the previous year. And even moderate to heavy drinking can have damaging effects on quality of life, mental health, productivity, and relationships. But what about the occasional tipple? Well that is confusing – previously we were told the odd drink was beneficial to our health, now the pendulum appears to be swinging in the direction of ‘any amount of alcohol is bad for you’.
But if you are are contemplating having the odd drink over the festive season then its worth knowing the effect alcohol can have on your body and how to mitigate adverse effects. Of course the only real way to avoid a hangover is not to drink of course but in this blog I give you some pointers to reduce the adverse effects.
How Alcohol Affects Our Body
Alcohol, or ethanol, is produced by the fermentation of grains, fruits, or other carbohydrate-containing foods. With 7 calories per gram, it is a source of energy which means if you regularly drink in addition to your meals, you will quickly find the weight creeping on.
The effect alcohol has on our body is somewhat dose dependent. Alcohol is a drug and has a depressant effect on the central nervous system. It is metabolized in the liver to the toxin acetaldehyde which is then converted to carbon dioxide and water for excretion. The body can only process so much alcohol per hour. This is why the negative effects are most evident when you frequently and / or excessively drink as there is not enough time for the acetaldehyde to leave the blood stream before it starts to damage the body.
Recent studies appear to contraindicate the previous belief about the benefits of so called ‘moderate drinking’. In fact, the new guidelines for alcohol consumption produced by the Chief Medical Officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers.
What is Moderate Drinking Anyway?
There is no universal definition of a ‘standard drink’ or ‘moderate drinking’. It varies from country to country. In the UK, “moderate drinking” is defined as consuming 14 standard drinks per week or less. This is equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or six 175ml glasses of average strength wine. It is also recommended to have several alcohol-free days a week. Be mindful that glass sizes differ dramatically as do the % alcohol content of different brands of the same drink. For example, white wine can have as little as 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) or as much as 14%.
Women typically feel the effects of alcohol sooner than men. This is because they tend to weigh less than men, have less water in their bodies than men, and produce less alcohol dehydrogenases (a class of enzymes that allow us to metabolize alcohol) than men.
What Causes Hangovers?
Many people feel that hangovers are simply due to dehydration. While this is likely to be a main player other factors are involved. Alcohol affects the pituitary gland which is involved in producing antidiuretic hormone (ADH). ADH increases your blood pressure by causing your body to retain water. With alcohol consumption you produce less ADH, so instead of retaining water, you are more likely to make a few trips to the bathroom. However once the alcohol levels fall ADH production increases which typically results in fluid retention, puffiness and a headache as blood pressure rises.
Another organ affected are the kidneys which pump out more of the enzyme renin and the hormone aldosterone. This promotes the secretion of vasopressin, which increases blood pressure by inducing sodium retention and potassium loss. The adrenals also kick in producing more cortisol contributing to more fluid retention and blood sugar imbalances. This can make you feel bloated, fatigued and the blood sugar fluctuations can equally contribute to headaches. Alcohol consumption can also disrupt sleep patterns particularly slow wave sleep meaning you wake up not feeling particularly rested.
Tips to feel great the morning after
Limit Your Intake
This is an obvious solution – if you are going to drink then just don’t overdo it! What is too much for one person to another will vary. Body weight, age, gender, whether you have recently eaten recently, even the type of alcohol you drink will influence the severity of your symptoms. Those common symptoms of low mood, irritability, headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, and fatigue are linked to depletion of stored neurotransmitters in the brain and something known as “refractory sensitivity.” Neurotransmitters are chemicals affecting how we think and feel (hence the low mood and irritability) while refractory sensitivity refers to imbalances in different receptors in the body which can make you more prone for example to light or noise sensitivity.
Before the Party
If you know you have a party at the weekend try and catch up on sleep in anticipation. Your liver will also thank you for extra antioxidant support – so up the fruits and veggies or consider supplementation. Choline is an essential nutrient for liver health so consider choline supplementation. Eat a light meal before the party – you ideally want some food in your stomach to slow the absorption of the alcohol, but not so much that you further overdo the calories from the food and alcohol you will be consuming. If you want to up the antioxidants consider a green tea or turmeric protein smoothie. Another good option is a vegetable soup or small salad with some protein. You may also want consider supplementation on the day of the party. Take 500mg of NAC and 1g vitamin C. NAC is a precursor to glutathione, the antioxidant responsible for metabolizing alcohol.
Select Your Drinks Carefully
Choosing drinks that are low in congeners, such as vodka, gin and rum, may help reduce the severity and frequency of hangovers. Congeners are chemical by-products that are formed in small amounts during the fermentation process – these vary in different alcoholic beverages. Studies suggest that drinks high in congeners can trigger more hangovers. Drinks darker in colour often can cause more problems such as red wine, whisky and cognac being particularly high. Better options include vodka, gin and rum.
However for others the high histamine levels in certain drinks such as wine can be a real issue. While raised levels of histamines can contribute positively to focus and attention, if you struggle with breaking down histamines you may find yourself more prone to adverse reactions from alcohol such as irritability, insomnia, increased heart rate and headaches.
Try Vitamin C & Magnesium Before Bed.
Before you go to bed increase your intake of vitamin C. Vitamin C is a valuable antioxidant and can support liver detoxification. Before you go to bed take at least 500mg vitamin C with 2-3 glasses of water. Alcohol actually increases urinary excretion of vitamin C making it particularly useful after the party. Some people also find at least 5g of glutamine powder also useful to help stabilize sugar levels. Repeat this in the morning before you tackle breakfast. Consider using an electrolyte tablet or coconut water to ensure optimal levels of electrolytes too. Consider 200mg magnesium glycinate to help sleep and consider some activated charcoal too. The charcoal will not absorb the alcohol but can help with toxins if the quality of the alcohol you have been drinking is questionable.
While you may not feel like eating the morning after it may help reduce your hangover symptoms. In the morning your blood sugar will be low and you will be dehydrated. Having a protein based breakfast or snack will help stabilise blood sugar. Low blood sugar can contribute to some of the typical hangover symptoms, such as nausea and fatigue. In addition heavy drinking can cause blood chemical imbalances resulting in metabolic acidosis, which is characterized by an increase in acidity. This can then trigger feelings of nausea and vomiting. Choose foods that are easy to digest and provide some protein and slow releasing carbs. Some people find that caffeine can be helpful (in moderation) particularly if they have a headache. An easy breakfast option would be a whey protein shake with a banana and coconut water. (coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes). Whey is also a natural source of glutathione, a potent antioxidant that supports liver detoxification. Alternatively try a bowl of porridge for some slow releasing carbs with a grapefruit for a dose of vitamin C.
Sleep it Off
Alcohol can disrupt blood sugar and result in poor sleep patterns. A lack of sleep will aggravate your hangover symptoms so try and grab as much sleep as possible.
Drinking alcohol can lead to dehydration – this is mainly because it has a diuretic effect leading to a loss of fluids and electrolytes. If you’re also being sick that can lead to even more fluid loss. After drinking, your body converts methanol into formaldehyde, a highly toxic substance. Formaldehyde may be partly responsible for many hangover symptoms. The day after reach for electrolyte rich fluids like coconut water, tomato juice, watermelon juice or use sports electrolyte tablets added to water to replenish electrolytes and fluids quickly.
Great Foods to Try
There is no hangover ‘cure’ but certain foods and nutrients may lesson the symptoms.
Panax Ginseng & Siberian Ginseng have both been shown to help reduce symptoms of hangovers – so try this first thing in the morning.
Banana – Excessive alcohol can diminish carbohydrate levels and deplete magnesium and B vitamins. Bananas are useful source of B6, potassium, magnesium and quick releasing carbs to perk you up. To help balance your blood sugar try banana topped on oat cakes, which are a great source of slow releasing carbohydrate and soluble fibre to boost flagging energy levels.
Coconut water It’s not so much the alcohol that leads to hangover symptoms but some of the chemicals the alcohol is metabolized into such as acetaldehyde. Alcohol is also a diuretic so a night out on the town can lead to dehydration further exacerbating that throbbing head the morning after. Coconut water is a great hydrating drink – rich in electrolytes sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are depleted after a night of drinking. So before you go to bed have a couple of glasses of coconut water to support detoxification.
Eggs. Eggs contains an amino acid called N acetyl cysteine one of the building blocks of a potent antioxidant called glutathione which is important in ridding the body of the toxins from alcohol. Protein will also help support energy levels through the morning. So the morning after if you can face it have a couple of scrambled eggs with veggies for a breakfast energy boost
Berries & Citrus Fruits. Not only does alcohol deplete your body of nutrients particularly vitamin C, A and B vitamins it can also lead to low blood sugar levels, which may leave you feeling weak and shaky. Counter this by snacking on a bowl of berries or an orange. A great source of natural sugars to boost energy levels and plenty of vitamin C an essential antioxidant to protect your body from the damaging effects of alcohol. These fruits also contain a range of energy boosting B vitamins and vitamin A to replenish depleted levels.
Watermelon. Like berries watermelon is a fabulous source of potent antioxidants including carotenoids. It is also packed with water to boost hydration. Watermelon is high in many essential nutrients that can be depleted by alcohol, including vitamin C, B-vitamins and magnesium.
Ginger. Hangovers are often accompanied by an upset stomach. If you feel a little queasy try sipping some ginger tea or cordial. Ginger’s root contains chemicals called gingerols and shogaols. These chemicals relax the intestinal tract, preventing motion sickness and relieving the nausea and colicky stomach cramps. You could suck on a ginger sweet or munch a little crystallised ginger. The sugar it contains also helps to bring up your blood sugar levels, which can crash following a night of alcohol.
Supergreens. An effective way to support Phase I and II detoxification pathways is to add a spoonful of green superfood powder to a morning protein smoothie. Choose a blended powder, wheatgrass, spirulina, chlorella to support the liver pathways.
Baked potato – rich in vitamin B6 plus potassium (eat the skin as well). These are an ideal choice if you want to keep meals bland to prevent nausea and sickness – combine with some lean protein to support blood sugar levels.
Oats – another good source of B vitamins and magnesium needed to perk up energy levels. Oats can also help stabilise blood sugar levels too which can be out of balance after a drinking session
If you’re looking to kick start your health after the festive season then try one of our detox programmes.