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The demon drink: Is alcohol affecting your health and wellness?

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It sometimes seems that every social activity comes with a side of Sauvignon Blanc, and it can be hard to reconcile that with a wellness-focused lifestyle. Samantha Wong reports.

We all love to unwind at the end of the day… sometimes through a great training session or trail run, and sometimes in the plaza with the help of a few glasses of wine. Everything in moderation, right?

Or not? Do we know what alcohol actually does to our bodies? Do we know how drinking impacts our health? And just how much alcohol is too much alcohol?

Impact on health

First, the bad news. Moderate to heavy drinking brings a long list of potential health problems with it, such as cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes), liver and kidney dysfunction, diabetes, pancreatitis and osteoporosis. It is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including breast, oesophageal and liver.

Furthermore, even moderate drinking messes with our hormones. It lowers testosterone, increases oestrogen and elevates cortisol (through poor sleeping patterns). Both sexes are affected in terms of fertility. And perhaps most profoundly, heavy drinkers and their families tend to have decreased quality of life.

Now, the good news. Medically speaking, it’s fairly well-accepted that low to moderate drinkers may actually be healthier as a group than people who don’t drink at all.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” says 10-year health coach and personal trainer, DB resident Claire Mas. “If you do enjoy a drink regularly, celebrate the benefits of being in the light to moderate category. Studies show that low to moderate alcohol consumption (particularly red wine) may improve immunity, reduce cardiovascular disease and stave off Alzheimer’s.

“These benefits are not a reason I would advocate non-drinkers to start today,” Claire adds with a smile. “But rather a reason to encourage those who do consume alcohol to be conscious of their amounts so that it is a support, rather than a hindrance, in their wellness journey.”

How much is too much?

So how much alcohol is too much? As with most health issues, the answer is different for each individual. It also depends on our age and gender. Men can drink more because they have higher levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme in the stomach that digests alcohol, meaning less alcohol actually enters their blood stream when they have a drink.

Low to moderate alcohol consumption is typically defined as five to eight drinks per week for men, and two to six drinks per week for women. Moderate to high alcohol consumption is defined as 10 or more drinks per week for men, seven or more for women. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks at one sitting for men, and four or more drinks at one sitting for women.

Now consider that a ‘standard drink’ contains around 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. That’s about 12 fluid ounces of beer, 9 fluid ounces of malt liquor, 5 fluid ounces of wine and 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

What’s your poison?

If we’ve got a handle on our drinking and we’re drinking in moderation, which type of alcohol should we choose? Are some drinks ‘better’ for us than others?

“Stick to low-sugar spirits, such as tequila, scotch or vodka,” says Integrated Medicine Institute (IMI) founding director and naturopath Graeme Bradshaw. “These are the ‘cleanest,’ least inflammatory choices. And drink your spirits without sugary mixers, which add extra calories. Try carbonated or soda water, with a splash of fresh lemon or lime juice.”

And what of tonic? It doesn’t taste especially sweet (thanks to the bitter quinine), but it’s there on the label – 8 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. This means that when you settle down to drink two modest gin and tonics, you consume at least four teaspoons of sugar. One alternative is to play around with soda and natural sweeteners – muddle some berries in the bottom of your glass or slip in an orange peel. But if you can’t imagine G or V without T, here’s a hot tip. Pay that little bit extra for Fever-Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water – it contains just 2.9 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres and has no nasty, artificially sweetened end flavour.

And so, to wine. “Red is your best choice because it’s lower in sugar than white or sparkling,” Graeme says. “If you have gut issues, avoid beer and whisky as they often contain gluten and wheat.

“Nominate three to four alcoholfree days each week,” Graeme adds. “Always note how much alcohol is going into your drinks and alternate them with a glass of water to stay hydrated.”

The day after

But does a big night out cancel out all the progress we’ve been making at the gym and with our diets? What’s the story behind alcohol consumption and fitness?

Claire willingly admits that she drinks on average once a week because she enjoys the social aspect. “There are some weeks when I don’t drink at all and others when I have a couple of events to attend that might involve drinking,” she adds. “I do not drink in excess and I try to drink as much water as possible.”

However, Claire is quick to focus on the way alcohol dysregulates hormones. “These changes will increase fat mass, decrease muscle mass, increase muscle soreness and decrease your energy levels.

“Alcohol metabolism also inhibits nutrient absorption, so that what you are eating doesn’t necessarily make it to the tissues and organs that need to recover,” Claire adds. “If you are an exercise enthusiast (three or more sessions weekly) and a moderate alcohol consumer, you should be bolstering your body’s post-fitness recovery with at least a quality multivitamin, fish oil and branched-chain amino acid on the days that you choose to have a drink.”

Opening the discussion about alcohol and weight gain, Claire says, “After you drink alcohol, your body diverts all of its resources to getting it out of your system, so it stops processing other forms of energy, storing them for later. A recent study suggests that it’s not alcohol itself that makes the waistline grow, but the food eaten after drinking that ends up on your love handles. Next time you have a drink, consider that everything you eat for the following hour will likely end up being stored, not burned. I commonly see clients lose 5 to 10 pounds just by cutting back on alcohol.”

As well as packing on the calories, alcohol can get in the way of our wellness goals, simply because of the way it makes us feel the day after. We’re grumpy and lethargic, and in the mood for nothing that can’t be achieved from the couch.

“My biggest problem with drinking is that it’s such a demotivator,” says Claire ruefully. “I regularly see dedicated clients, who’ve worked hard on their diet and fitness goals all week, blow it all with a heavy drinking session on Friday night – after that the rest of their weekend is a wipe out.”

Many of us are programmed to think of drinking as a reward, something we get to do after a tough week. And I for one need to rethink this. For now, I’ve decided that as long as I’m drinking mindfully and controlling my intake, there’s no reason I can’t hit McSorley’s for a glass or two every now and then.

Essential chasers

Graeme Bradshaw at IMI recommends that those of us who drink regularly introduce the following nutrients and supplements into our daily routine.

“Take Liver Support – a potent clinical-grade formula containing milk thistle and other effective herbs – before you go out. Our livers need additional nutrients to detoxify the alcohol and boost our immune systems.

“Boost your intake of vitamin C (it restores cellular health damaged by alcohol consumption) and B-vitamins, which are highly depleted by alcohol and necessary for energy, a good mood and cognition. Take magnesium (it supports relaxation, sleep and nervous system functioning) and zinc, which restores hormonal balance and the immune system after drinking.

“Ola Loa provides active vitamin B, vitamin D, magnesium and zinc, along with electrolytes and 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C. It’s an easyto-take rehydrating drink, and provides a stronger detox than the popular Berocca or Emergen C.

“Nux Vomica 30 is another popular homeopathic remedy. It helps relieve the digestive stress and acidity caused by too much alcohol. You can also take a probiotic to restore the gut’s microbial balance after drinking.”


• Claire Mas Fitness, www.clairemasfitness.com

• Integrated Medicine Institute, www.imi.com.hk

Photo by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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