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Condition - Is your social drinking becoming a problem?

By Corin Evans DipION FdSc MBANT

Most people enjoy a tipple around the festive period, but when all the celebrations are over, is your alcohol intake still hovering above healthy guidelines? If you enjoy a large glass of wine or a couple of pints a night, the chances are that it is.

And you are not alone; according to recent figures, just under a third of men and a fifth of women in the UK regularly drink more than the Government’s daily unit guidelines.

So just how much is too much?

At present, the Government guidelines for safe drinking are two to three units per day for women, and three to four for men. While this sounds a reasonable amount, in real terms, it is surprisingly easy to reach these limits. For example, for a woman, this would be drinking just 1.3 glasses (assuming a 175ml measure) or less than a third of a bottle of wine. For a man, this equates to just less than 1.7 glasses, or 1.7 pints of lager.

Problems stemming from excessive drinking are often perceived to be the territory of young binge drinkers, but what of the less obvious risks associated with your average drinker, who enjoys a ‘well deserved’ glass of wine or two over an evening meal?

As well as irritating the gut lining, making problems like IBS or poor absorption more likely, any alcohol we consume must be cleared from the body via the liver. The liver has two phases of detoxification; phase I, where the toxin is modified (and often made more toxic or reactive), and phase II, where it is then made safe and ready for excretion. One of the problems with alcohol is that it speeds up phase I of detoxification, leaving phase II unable to keep up, resulting in more reactive toxic chemicals, which are able to cause oxidative damage to tissues. The double whammy with alcohol, however, is that acetaldehyde, one of the chemicals formed when alcohol is broken down in the liver during phase I detoxification, is thought to be a human carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical), making it even more damaging.

Increased alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. While the mechanisms are not fully understood, alcohol is known to raise levels of oestrogen in the body in both pre- and post-menopausal women, possibly by increasing activity of the enzyme aromatase. Research also links higher alcohol consumption to lowered fertility, probably as a result of reduced ovulation.

And men don’t escape so easily either; not only is increased alcohol consumption linked to a reduction in testosterone levels, it is also linked to more female patterns of fat distribution and storage, i.e. around the belly and chest area.

The jury is still out as to the risks versus benefits of alcohol on cardiovascular disease. While increased alcohol consumption is directly linked to increases in blood pressure, other studies suggest light to moderate intake has a beneficial effect on other markers, such as cholesterol. Overall, risk for the harmful effects of alcohol, however, seems to be greater for women and younger people.

Alcohol also has a detrimental effect on sleep patterns. While helping you to drop off to sleep initally, after several hours, its effects wear off and you enter REM sleep, which is much lighter, causing you to wake up. This affects the normal cycle of sleep, making you wake in the morning feeling tired.

Often referred to as ‘empty calories’, alcohol provides fuel in the form of sugars, but contains very little nutritional benefit. Alcohol could be classed as an ‘anti-nutrient’, requiring nutrients to process it that the body could utilise elsewhere. In this way, vitamins A, C, D and E, and many of the B vitamins, as well as vital minerals including zinc, calcium and magnesium, can become depleted.

Deeply ingrained in our social culture, breaking the alcohol habit is not always easy, but with some carefully chosen nutrients to help support both liver and brain, you can soon be reaping the benefits that lowering your intake imparts.

Boost your B vitamins – these are important to support brain and liver health. They are involved in both phases of detoxification and are often cofactors for healthy neurotransmitter levels, thus optimising healthy mood. Choline may be particularly useful here, with research showing it to be protective against fatty liver disease and cirrhosis. High-choline foods include eggs and cauliflower, so add these regularly to the diet or within a supplement.

The amino acids methionine, glutamine and n-acetyl cysteine are all invaluable for brain and liver support, promoting healthy glutathione levels – a potent antioxidant used by the liver to protect against damage from toxic chemicals. Research shows that methionine may also be helpful in lowering acetaldehyde levels after alcohol ingestion, whereas glutamine may help curb cravings for sugar, but more importantly, alcohol, as well as supporting a healthy gut lining.

Taurine, an amino acid precursor to GABA, one of the calming neurotransmitters in the brain, may also be beneficial. People often use alcohol to help them relax after a busy day, so taurine may play a useful role in helping to wind down. Similarly, if low mood is part of the reason that alcohol is so appealing, 5HTP, also an amino acid, may be valuable, as it is a building block of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter serotonin.

It goes without saying that a healthy diet supports all aspects of liver and brain function. Make sure your diet is full of fresh vegetables and fruit to provide a wide array of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Broccoli, greens and sprouts are particularly good; helping to balance detoxification phases in the liver. Make sure you are including good-quality protein with each of your meals; eggs, salmon and beans are all particularly liver-supportive.

With so many long-term health benefits, isn’t it worth taking a little time now to get on top of your alcohol intake? With a little help from your friends, of course! 

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