For many of us, alcohol is part of our social lives. Whether it's a glass of wine with Italian food, a beer with snacks as we watch sports on tv, or a glass of champagne to toast during a special occasion.
I don't see a problem with any of those scenarios for us women over 40.
The problem with alcohol (for us at least) starts with situations as follows:
You use alcohol regularly to cope with stress or decompress.
You consume alcohol regularly, and the serving size gradually becomes more than the recommended.
You consume alcohol regularly, and you notice symptoms such as sleep problems, weight gain, mood swings, bloating, joint pain, fatigue, and digestive issues.
You consume alcohol regularly and have a family history of cancer.
If any of the above applies to you, you might want to keep reading.
It starts from the principle of what alcohol itself is. Alcohol acts as a toxin in our bodies. Both liver and kidneys have to spend time and effort processing alcohol and filtering its toxins so they can be expelled out of our bodies through our urine and sweat. When young, this process happens almost unnoticeably, but as we age, particularly in women, there is an increased physiological effort during this process of detoxification. That's why many women over 40 report being more "sensitive" to alcohol compared with when they were younger.
The next question is about the claims of health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Even your doctor might have said that a glass of wine daily might be good for you.
Well, is it?
Past studies showing benefits from moderate alcohol consumption
Most past studies showing possible benefits of alcohol are related to cardiovascular health.
These are primarily populational studies in Europe where culturally, especially in Mediterranean cultures, there's regular consumption of wine with meals. But, as you can imagine, there are problems with these studies. Other than the population difference itself, the problem is that many other factors contributing to heart health were not included. Factors such as living in an environment with less stress and pollution, different lifestyles, and the differences in the social connections and dynamics compared to the U.S. population.
Also, when the benefits of wine were reported, it was mainly due to the unique benefits of a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol which is found in specific types of red grapes. To generalize that all other types of wine will have enough resveratrol to promote health is an exaggeration of facts.
The media, though, worked fast on spreading the news about the benefits of wine consumption even before there was sufficient evidence to have a definite conclusion.
As for the other studies showing the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption in general terms, these studies, like most studies with alcoholic beverages, were observational studies that cannot show actual causality.
Recommended Guidelines for Alcohol Intake
There are recommendations for alcoholic beverage consumption from different countries.
In the U.S., these guidelines are revised by the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee. In fact, the last Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 2020, reduced the recommended intake of alcohol for men, based on current findings where the risks outweighed supposed benefits. Furthermore, they recommend: "Do not begin to drink alcohol or purposefully continue to drink because you think it will make you healthier.
If you drink alcohol at all levels of consumption, drinking less is generally better for health than drinking more."
Now let's revisit the problems mentioned above:
1st problem: using alcohol to cope with stress.
During the past two years, many people turned to alcohol to cope with the uncertainty of a global pandemic. For a lot of people, a new habit began.
From an emotional perspective, I think we all agree that dealing with problems or trying to forget them by using alcohol is not the best solution.
Second problem: progressively increasing the amount of alcohol.
The current (not yet updated) recommendations from the CDC for alcohol consumption are:
No more than one drink a day for women
No more than two drinks a day for men*
A drink is equivalent to:
5oz of wine (that's less than half of most tall wine glasses)
and 1.5 oz of liquor (1 margarita usually has 2 of these)
So it's not hard to imagine that most people that start with one serving will progressively increase their intake as time goes by - who drinks only 5 oz of wine?!
Addressing problems #3 and #4 implies talking about the potential side effects of alcohol consumption.
* Side note: I'm not including the effects of heavy drinking because it is already established that excessive drinking causes premature death, liver damage, cancers, and brain damage, among other health problems.
The following are considerations for a moderate intake of alcohol.
#1 - Even when considering the claimed "health benefit" of red wine, the amount of any nutritional value is so small that it's irrelevant. Alcohol, even wine, is considered an "empty" source of calories by dietary standards.
#2 - Alcohol inhibits leptin, a satiety hormone responsible for telling the brain that you are no longer hungry. In other words, it increases and prolongs the sensation of hunger and may dysregulate your natural cues for hunger and satiety.
#3- Alcohol lowers blood sugar, and guess what's the result? Cravings for carbs and fast energy food - that's why most people eat a lot while drinking alcohol or after an alcohol binge.
#4- Alcohol is diuretic and dehydrates our bodies. This raises our heart rate, and as a response, our bodies lower blood pressure trying to achieve some balance. Remember, this is happening while our liver and kidneys are busy trying to filter the toxins. That's is why many of us feel fatigued, dizzy, or headachy, especially if we don't drink water.
#5- Alcohol is very harsh on the stomach and digestive linings. It can cause flare-ups and issues in people with digestive conditions such as IBS, diverticulitis, etc.
#6- Alcohol disrupts sleep. With the initial "calming" effect, alcohol's burden on our body ends up causing other processes to take priority, and by doing that, it prevents our sleep from reaching the REM phase. That's why most people wake up in the middle of the night, especially women in the menopause transition, whose hormonal fluctuations and night sweats can cause disruptive sleep.
#7- Alcohol affects women more drastically than men – women have a higher risk for urinary tract infection if consuming alcohol regularly, and is aggravated with aging. Many women over 40 report feeling worse effects from alcohol than when they were younger or more sensitive to it in general!
#8- If you are trying to lose weight, alcohol can hamper your efforts.
Let's say you drink just a glass of wine "to take the edge off" every day. That's an average of eight drinks a week. Many of my clients reported that's being a norm during Covid. Now, this single habit will contribute to at least 1200 calories to your diet weekly. And remember, these calories are not "filling" but are fast-absorbed, straight into your bloodstream to any fat reserve if you don't burn them off. In addition to that, alcohol will trigger you to eat more (remember, leptin?).
So, those calories can add up to almost 5000 calories in a month, which is not an insignificant amount. You could be eating that much in real, nourishing foods!
#9 Alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.
A 2015 study in the BMJ showed that even moderate alcohol consumption ay increase women's risk of breast cancer.
I'm not here to tell you NOT to drink alcohol ever. I would be a hypocrite if I did since I drink alcohol occasionally, mostly socially. My husband is an athlete, so we're both not heavy drinkers at all. Alcohol definitely affects my sleep, so I'm very conscious of drinking plenty of water if I have any alcohol, but I do like a beer or glass of wine or a crafted cocktail once in a while.
I think alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle, just as much as "extra" foods can.
The important thing is to realize that alcohol is becoming more and more part of our social and cultural norms. Now we encounter a wider variety of social places, such as wineries and breweries. There are various drink options, such as seltzers and "lower-calorie" drinks; even kombucha has been made into the trendy market now as an alcoholic beverage. The industry is growing and so is marketing around it.
Drinking for enjoyment is ok. Drinking out of habit is not.
While we may have our vices, if you find yourself reaching for that glass of wine on a regular basis, I invite you to become more conscious about the purpose that wine is serving you.
Awareness is key. And I say this often about many things related to health because... it is true. Being aware and analytical of your lifestyle habits is the first step toward improving your quality of life.
2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Alcoholic Beverages
Alcohol & Toxicity
CDC Guideline & Facts about Moderate Drinking
Lancet - Statement about Alcohol Consumption & Health