Alcohol & Nutrition
Alcohol and Nutrition
Before you read this article, you should know that I am not anti-alcohol. Yes, I choose not to drink now but drank for years and had many very enjoyable occasions where I have drunk alcohol. This aims to be a balanced view on alcohol and provide you with information that I have researched to make your own choices. Alcohol is viewed in many cultures as a tonic for relaxation and relieving stress, to celebrate and to commiserate. In this article, I look at what alcohol is and how our bodies detoxify it. I check on the risks to drinking alcohol and provide tips to stay healthier if you choose to drink.
What is Alcohol?
Wine, beer, spirits are made through a process of fermentation which creates ethanol (alcohol). Grains, fruits and vegetables are put through this process. Yeast and bacteria react with the sugars in the food. As a by-product, ethanol and carbon dioxide are produced (14). As well as drinks, ethanol is used in solvents, perfumes, toiletries, disinfectants, preservatives, polishes, fuel additives and in the manufacture of plastic, rubber and drugs. If we have had one too many drinks, the side effects of ingesting ethanol can be mood changes, slower reaction times, uncoordinated movements, slurred speech and nausea. If we expose ourselves to higher amounts the list includes blurred vision, vomiting, coma, low temperature and fitting (10).
A combined review in 2016 of 87 studies on alcohol with all causes of death (2) concluded that drinking in low volumes was as harmless as not drinking. So, does this mean we can drink to low volumes safely? What is classified a low volume drinker? In the review, a low volume drinker was someone who consumed less than 30g ethanol per day. Although difficult to be specific (3), this is roughly equivalent to two 5% beers of 12 fl oz (340ml) or two glasses of 12% wine of 5 fl oz (147ml) or two spirits at 40% of 1.5 fl oz (44ml) (4).
However, in contrast, a larger review in 2012 of 222 articles concluded that light drinking, up to one drink per day, increases the risk of cancer of oral cavity and pharynx, oesophagus and female breast (6). The UK government published a paper in 2015 (11) concluding that drinking alcohol has been shown to increase the risk (or chance) of getting some types of cancer.
With regards to heavier drinking, risk increases significantly. Binge drinking is classified by the NHS as drinking more than 6 units for women or 8 units of alcohol for men in one sitting. For context, 6 units is equivalent to 2 pints of strong beer or 2 large glasses of wine. The World Health Organisation (8) recognises that alcohol contributes to 3 million annual deaths worldwide and is responsible for the poor health of millions worldwide. It causes significant diseases including alcoholic fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis; cirrhosis (9).
In summary, is it risk free to drink a low volume of alcohol? Probably not. Are there things we can do to support our bodies with the metabolism of alcohol? Definitely yes.
Detoxification is the process of turning fat soluble toxins and xenobiotics (external chemicals such as pesticides) into water soluble compounds that can be excreted. For this article, I am concentrating on the two middle phases of detoxification.
Phase 1 is where the toxin reaches the liver. There are a number of reactions that take place here using enzymes (catalysts) produced by the liver. Firstly, ethanol permeates through virtually all tissues in the body (7). When we detoxify ethanol in phase 1, our bodies produce a substance called Acetaldehyde (1). This substance is toxic to the body and is associated with swelling of the liver (13).
Phase 1 is often overloaded due to high toxic loads. Therefore, we need to quickly get acetaldehyde into the next phase of detoxification. We don’t want it to be hanging around unchecked inside the body as it can cause damage to our cells. Phase 2 is a series of reactions that bind the phase 1 products to make them water soluble ready for excretion. If you find that you feel the effects of alcohol very quickly then it maybe that your phase 2 pathway needs some support to remove the toxins more effectively. Other signs of impaired detoxification may include dry skin; itching; dark circles under eyes; poor concentration and brain fog; constipation; tiredness.
Supporting our bodies with detoxification
Ensure adequate water intake of at least 2 litres filtered water daily to help with excretion.
Increase soluble fibre (beans, avocado, root vegetable etc) to support elimination from the body.
Remove unnecessary toxins to slow down Phase 1. This could include harsh cleaning products and smoking.
Go Organic with foods as this will minimise pesticides and other xenobiotics.
Foods high in B Vitamins are great for Phase 1 enzyme production. Include Liver & Organ Meats, Salmon, Leafy Greens etc.
Eat a rainbow of colours with your fruit and vegetables. This will provide antioxidant support to mop up the damage of Phase 1 compounds.
Cruciferous vegetables (Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage etc) are great to support Phase 2.
Sulphur rich foods such as onions and garlic support Phase 2.
Asparagus increases the activity of detoxification enzymes (15).
Red Beetroot supports detoxification in Phase 2.
Statistically, it’s very likely that you choose to drink alcohol and why not, it can be very enjoyable. Firstly, lower the risk of alcohol damage by reducing other toxins from the body first. This gives the body a better chance of detoxifying small amounts of alcohol. Further support detoxification by adding in nutrients which will help with the detoxification pathways. Always follow your governments recommendations on alcohol consumption.
- Wilson, D. F., & Matschinsky, F. M. (2020). Ethanol metabolism: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Medical Hypotheses, 140,
- Stockwell, T., Zhao, J., Panwar, S., Roemer, A., Naimi, T., & Chikritzhs, T. (2016). Do “Moderate” Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 77(2), 185–198
- Ferner, R. E., & Chambers, J. (2001). Alcohol intake: measure for measure. BMJ, 323(7327), 1439–1440
- National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink. Accessed Jan 2021
- Thun, M. J., Peto, R., Lopez, A. D., Monaco, J. H., Henley, S. J., Heath, C. W., & Doll, R. (1997). Alcohol Consumption and Mortality among Middle-Aged and Elderly U.S. Adults. New England Journal of Medicine, 337(24), 1705–1714
- Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Botteri, E., Tramacere, I., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., … La Vecchia, C. (2012). Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis. Annals of Oncology, 24(2), 301–308
- Binge drinking’s effects on the body. Molina, P.E. & Nelson, S., Alcohol Research (2018), Jan 39(1), pp. 99-109.
- World Health Organisation. https://www.who.int/health-topics/alcohol#tab=tab_1 Accessed Jan 2021.
- National Health Service. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-related-liver-disease-arld/ Accessed Jan 2021
- Public Health England. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/769779/Ethanol_PHE_general_information_070119.pdfAccessed Jan 2021
- Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the environment (COC). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/490584/COC_2015_S2__Alcohol_and_Cancer_statement_Final_version.pdf. Accessed Jan 2021.
- Molina, P. E., Gardner, J. D., Souza-Smith, F. M., & Whitaker, A. M. (2014). Alcohol Abuse: Critical Pathophysiological Processes and Contribution to Disease Burden. Physiology, 29(3), 203–215
- LIEBER, C. S. (1988). Metabolic effects of acetaldehyde. Biochemical Society Transactions, 16(3), 241–247
- co.uk. https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/alcoholic-drinks-and-units/what-is-alcohol-ingredients-chemicals-and-manufacture Accessed Feb 2021.
- Lee, D. Y., Choo, B. K., Yoon, T., Cheon, M. S., Lee, H. W., Lee, A. Y., & Kim, H. K. (2009). Anti-inflammatory effects of Asparagus cochinchinensis extract in acute and chronic cutaneous inflammation. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 121(1), 28–34