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CommunityHealthWhat alcohol is doing to your body — and mind

The Sober Curious movement is not the same as sobriety.It's not about serious addicts giving up booze but about often moderate drinkers wanting to cut down on alcohol for health reasons. Health experts explain why that's a good idea.
Anna PukasJanuary 1, 202229 min
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The Sober Curious movement doesn’t have the same all-or-nothing approach as sobriety, which is the lifestyle adopted by those recovering from alcoholism. Rather, it’s about questioning the role alcohol plays in your life and changing your drinking habits — for a variety of for reasons. It’s about asking important questions: What makes you want to have a drink in the first place? Do you sometimes drink alcohol even when you don’t feel like it? If so, where does that pressure come from?

The term was coined in 2018 by Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol (with that  title, you certainly know what you’re getting). She says being sober curious means choosing to “question or get curious about every impulse, invitation and expectation to drink versus mindlessly going along with the dominant drinking culture..

The definition of sober curiosity, then, is pretty wide-ranging. It means different things to different people, which is a big reason for its growing popularity. The sober curious don’t see themselves as dependent on alcohol and probably do not drink any more than others in their social circle. They likely don’t crave alcohol and probably haven’t hit rock bottom — nor ever will.

But they are curious about what alcohol is doing to their bodies and minds, and how they might feel if they didn’t drink it at all. Perhaps you are sober curious too? If so, here’s a little expert advice about what might be waiting for you on the other side of that cocktail.

What does drinking do to your physiology? 

Dr Remy Shanker, a specialist in dietetics and applied nutrition and wellness program specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi:

“We live in a culture which promotes the idea that alcohol is a necessary social lubricant. It’s also drilled into our subconscious that alcohol is a reward and that it enhances foods. It’s important to recognize the conditioned social ideology as well as the biochemical impact on our physiology, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling with cutting down your consumption. It has very little to do with willpower and needs an in-depth holistic approach.

Biochemically, alcohol has the ability to manipulate the body’s reward system. It placates the body’s natural responses, produces happiness and restorative neurochemicals and feel-good hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin and melatonin.

The body can’t metabolize the calories in alcohol and so has to use more energy to detox itself, which leads to hunger. Research shows that consuming alcohol triggers the brain center that regulates appetite in a different way, through heightening the signals you get from your sense of smell. The more you drink, the more ravenous you feel and the less likely you are to nourish yourself in a good way.

Excessive alcohol also depletes essential vitamins and minerals, especially thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine plays an integral role in our cognitive functions, memory and processing all food groups, but it isn’t produced naturally in the body — it comes from eating a balanced diet. Assaulting your body repeatedly with alcohol  (I don’t mean a one-off binge or the occasional glass of wine) can damage the stomach lining, which affects acid production, which is an essential vehicle for thiamine in micro-processing. In severe cases, alcohol-induced thiamine deficiency can lead to a life-threatening condition called beriberi.

You may have heard of drunkorexia. It’s a recent, non-medical term and has yet to be official classified as a mental illness and refers to someone who actively restricts their food intake to make room for the calories in alcoholic drinks. This includes calculating which drinks are lower in calories so they can drink more. Studies indicate it is common among 30 percent of females in the 18 to 23 age group. It could be prevalent among other age groups and men, too, but we just don’t have the data yet.

Drinking on an empty stomach leads to nutritional deficiencies, ill-health in the gut, a damaged stomach lining and altered metabolism in lean muscle mass and visceral body fat, which perpetuates the vicious cycle of body image issues for those with eating disorders. As with eating disorders, there is usually a crossover with other mental health conditions like anxiety, stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, the autism spectrum, ADHD, depression, bipolar syndrome and others.

Understanding one’s own behavior with alcohol means acknowledging the intersectional relationship between alcohol, our eating habits and our overall wellness.”

What does drinking do to your health and immunity?

Dr Nas Al Jafari, medical director and functional medicine specialist at DNA Health & Wellness in Dubai:

“I am not convinced there is a single benefit to having ethanol (another name for alcohol) in the body. There are many well-documented physical and mental effects of excessive alcohol. My issue with alcohol is related to its effect on sleep, which as a consequence affects immunity. We know that one night of disrupted sleep can reduce your natural killer T-cells, which fight infection, by up to 70 percent.

From my anecdotal experience, we are not just talking about chronic drinking. From the sleep tracking we undertake with our clients, a large glass of wine or a double whisky even on a single night can quantifiably decimate the quality of your sleep.

Alcohol is probably the most misunderstood “sleep aid.” It does three things:

1 – It’s a sedative so it works like sleeping pills. You might lose consciousness more quickly but you are not actually ‘falling asleep’ faster.

2 – Alcohol fragments sleep, so you wake up many more times during the night. Often it’s so brief that you won’t even remember waking up, but it does affect your physiology

3 – Alcohol blocks REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, so you wake up unrefreshed and unrestored.

However, I do wonder if there is a net benefit from alcohol if it lowers your stress.”

What is drinking doing to your diet?

Suzan Terzian, clinical nutritionist, holistic health coach and owner of Suzan Terzian Nutrition & Wellness Consultancy, answered:

“I know it’s not popular to say that alcohol isn’t ‘healthy’ for you. It’s the most popular legal drug and people have gone to great lengths to find some health benefits to it. But here’s a fact: alcohol is a toxin that your liver has to work hard to clear out, so let’s keep that in mind and let’s be very honest with ourselves when we say we are consuming alcohol in moderation.

What’s more alarming for me is the social pressure to drink in the name of happiness and living well. When you drink too much — that’s more than two drinks — the alcohol starts a domino effect of harm: spikes in blood sugar (causing mood swings), increased belly fat, hormonal disruption, fatty liver, depletion of B vitamins, damage to the gut microbiome, a suppressed immune system, brain damage and high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood). 

People are under the impression that alcohol helps put them to sleep but actually it seriously disrupts sleep.  Sleep is when our brains clean out the metabolic toxins produced the day before so one night of bad sleep impairs our brain health.

As far as weight loss, alcohol provides a much quicker, more accessible form of energy for your body than fat does. Our body will always go for the quickest and easiest energy source for fuel so this is why drinking can slow down weight loss.

But if you do choose to drink:

• Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food in your stomach blunts some of the harmful effects on your metabolism. 

• Limit yourself to one or two drinks.”

What is drinking doing to your body’s balance?

Dr Faryal Luhar, naturopathic doctor at DNA Health & Wellness:

“It’s no secret that drinking excessively can cause liver disease and general damage to the body. The liver is one of the most important organs in our bodies and drinking alcohol excessively stresses the detoxification mechanisms in the liver.

One of the subtances produced when a person drinks alcohol is acetaldehyde. How quickly someone is able to detoxify depends on how much acetaldehyde they produce and that depends on your genes and the health of your liver.

There are people who can process alcohol quckly, even five or six times faster than other people. Those who are slow at producing acetaldehyde will get drunk faster and have more severe hangovers, and it can push them toward being predisposed to cancer.

A lot of people drink because it stimulates production of dopamine, which is associated with the reward centers in the brain. If you have a sensitivity to dopamine, you will drink more to stimulate those receptors and to feel good,  but that will potentially increase the burden on your liver.

I also see hormonal imbalances in people who drink too much, particularly with estrogen, which causes a condition called estrogen dominance, which affects reproductive and hormonal health.

In women it can cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle and may even lead to issues with fertility. In men, excess estrogen will automatically lower testosterone and that’s really important for improving and maintaining muscle mass. If your testosterone is too low, it leads to increased fat around the belly, so you’ll develop a pot belly and ‘man boobs’. other detrimental effects include high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, disrupted sleep and disturbance of Circadian rhythms.

Alcohol does not help you sleep. It creates more production of cortisol (the primary stress hormone). If you have cortisol raging through your system you won’t be able to sleep.

Alcohol really creates havoc in the gut. Drinking too much impairs a healthy gut microbiome leading to lots of digestive issues, leading to leaky gut, stomach bloating, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, diarrhoea and even stomach ulcers. Indirectly it leads to problems with immunity, because the healthy bacteria isn’t there so you are more at risk of developing infections.”

What is drinking too much doing to your brain?

Reem Shaheen, counselling psychologist and managing director of BE Psychology Center for Emtional Wellbeing in Dubai:

“Alcohol is considered a depressant due to the overall slowdown it causes in the body. It mainly slows down the communication between neurons and also has a slowing-down effect on the cerebellum and cerebral cortex, the two areas of the brain responsible for automatic processes such as breathing, balance, coordination related to motor skills — especially those involving the hands and feet — and processing of new information. Alcohol also causes damage to the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for creating memory.

Due to its nature as a ‘downer’, alcohol is associated with mental illnesses such as depression and exacerbated symptoms of anxiety, low self-esteem, high risk behavior and suicide.”

What is drinking too much doing to your wellbeing? 

Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, holistic coach, hypnotherapist and founder of wellbeing platform Illuminations:

“Many of us drink to unwind and socialize. If you drink alcohol, you can ensure your wellbeing if you know your capacity and also keep to a healthy diet and exercise regime. That’s how you lead a lifestyle that focuses on enjoying the best of everything but knows when to stop.

Self-deprivation only leads to guilt and, possibly, uncontrollable desire. It does more harm than good to your mental health, so why not enjoy that glass of wine? The problem arises when the desire becomes difficult to control and it ends up being part of our daily lives. The subconscious mind associates alcohol — or any stimulant — with the pleasure center in the brain, so the next time we want to feel happy we will gravitate toward that stimulant to fill a void within us. But it’s a vicious cycle; the more we try to fill the void, the more alcohol we need. That’s how a habit becomes an addiction.

According to research, alcohol ranks third on the list of addictions, after tobacco and cocaine. Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, after tobacco and poor diet and physical inactivity. Excessive consumption has been  linked to more than 60 diseases or conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, dementia, heart problems, deteriorating memory and low immunity levels. It is often also a factor in motor accidents, violence and miscarriage.

There’s a famous quote by Michael Singer that goes, ‘Like a pendulum we swing back and forth, trying to find the middle balancing point’. What it means is that unless we direct our energies in moderation, we will always find ourselves in a negative state of wellbeing. Whenever you take something to extremes, it ends up hampering our mind-body-spirit and emotional balance.”

What is drinking too much doing to your parenting?

Leena Kapil, conscious parenting coach:

“You might feel you deserve to drink after a long week. Then next morning you feel sloppy, groggy and useless when the kids come and jump on your bed, wanting to play. Many mothers want to have a drink to calm their nerves when they are with their children. I have been there too! Twenty years ago, my friends nicknamed me ‘Alcoholic Gang Leader.’ I didn’t like the taste of alcohol but it was my gateway to having loads of fun. Two years ago I stopped consuming alcohol and my label now is ‘boring’. Why? Because I made a conscious decision to always be real.

Some argue that a couple of drinks makes no difference to their metal state, but children are like sponges — they absorb everything they see in us. If they see us depending on alcohol to calm our nerves, they will surely be influenced to do the same when they can’t handle the slightest stress in  life.

Dr Gabor Maté, a highly-respected expert and author on addiction, stress and childhood development, explains that a healthy relationship with responsive parents is essential for healthy brain development. When the parenting environment becomes distorted or hostile and abusive, you’re actually distorting your child’s brain development, which means they will be more likely to turn to substances to feel better or alter the state of their brain.

Parenting is not about your children, it’s about parenting yourself. If you find yourself indulging in intoxicants to numb your pain and find calm, you should know there are other healthier and mindful ways to achieve calmness. Always give priority to connection with your children and set an example for them to follow.”

What is drinking too much doing to your workout?

Sarah Yousef, personal trainer and yoga teacher:

“Drinking is not doing anything great for you, absolutely nothing. Alcohol is a poison and has many negative repercussions on an individual’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. It triggers a dangerous negative cycle that includes anxiety, bad food choices and social judgment, sluggish energy and self-loathing. This often leads to more drinking and so the cycle continues.

Genuinely happy people do not drink alcohol. To drink is to escape or to disconnect you from yourself. Why would you want to do that if you are happy?

This connection to self is important for athletic performance. Alcohol hinders the communication pathways from the brain to the body, which can affect coordination, concentration and endurance. It’s a sedative. In addition, alcohol is a diuretic which means it causes the body to dehydrate — not a good combination with sweating from exercise.

If you are looking to enhance your performance and remain consistent in your fitness development, then alcohol should be seriously regulated.

I personally quit alcohol entirely in 2019. My last drink was a half pint of beer on December 30, 2019. That night, I woke up at 3am feeling groggy and dehydrated. My head felt tight and I can only blame that one beer I had at dinner. I was already seriously cutting down my alcohol intake at that point as I was trying to improve my athletic performce. I had also just completed my training as a yoga teacher that year and was practising a lot more, which jump-started a detox process in my body and spirit that made me a lot more aware of and sensitive to how my consumption affected me.

It was a personal choice and it is the best one I made for my success on all fronts.”

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.

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