Monday, September 25, 2023
Mitochondrial Health Optimal Health

9 Instant Health Upgrades That Happen When You Quit Booze

9 Instant Health Upgrades That Happen When You Quit Booze

Every day we’re bombarded with TV images advertising all the good things that drinking alcohol brings – fun! Spontaneity! Romance! Too bad they rarely show us the other side, the busted lives and wrecked livers that come with blatantly abusive drinking. But for a much larger group of us, it’s a more subtle erosion of the quality of life – trouble sleeping, feeling a bit dragged out and mentally maybe a step slower – that is so routine we may not even think about what’s behind it. All too often, a so-called moderate alcohol habit that may even stay within government recommendations –no more than two daily drinks for men, one for women – nevertheless chips away at our physical and mental health. We have to call alcohol what it is: a toxin, and as we get older, the body gets less shy about confirming its toxic status. 

What I’d like to see however, would be a stream of TV ads and programs extolling all the great things that happen to us when we stop drinking or at minimum, significantly curtail it. Safe to say, I’m not going to hold my breath on that one, so if they won’t talk about the upsides than I will! Here’s a topline on what you can expect when you lose the booze, and trust me, it’s all good, so naturally, I encourage everyone to step away from the stuff. Here’s why:

Skip the boozin’ for better snoozin’.

A sound sleep is just about the best way to ensure an energetic day to follow and over the long haul, it’s a key to a long, healthy life. But even moderate drinking is a reliable way to screw it up, especially as we get older and our sleep becomes more easily disrupted. Yes, it’s true that a drink or two in the evening after a stressful day can help take the edge off — you may even fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. The catch? After the alcohol is completely metabolized, your nervous system rebounds to full-speed and you’re likely to wake up in the middle of the night or very early morning, completely disrupting the normal cycling of sleep stages that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. If you feel you must have a drink in the evening, have it at (early) dinner and give your body a chance to reset before bedtime. Better yet, skip that drink for the next few weeks — there’s nothing wrong with a Dry June, July, or August – and pay attention to how much better you’re sleeping. 

(Not) in the mood for booze.

Disrupted sleep isn’t the whole story when it comes to the number alcohol does on the brain. Alcohol interacts with a host of brain chemicals that help regulate how we feel and act. Many people experience the first effects of booze in the brain as positive. It mimics the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA which makes us feel relaxed and it stimulates the production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. But it’s a short-lived high. The tide of happy brain chemicals recedes and pretty soon you’re feeling more anxious, and in more serious instances, depressed, than you were before you started drinking. Which just makes you want to drink more, to recover that original good feeling. Without the booze, you’ll relearn to appreciate staying on a natural even keel without having to chase a chemical buzz all the time. 

Drinking isn’t good for thinking.

Drinking can impair cognitive performance — the more you drink, the more pronounced the effect. You may notice short-term memory lapses (“black-out” episodes are an extreme example) and if you were to take a test to measure your mental agility after, say, a weekend of heavy tippling, spoiler alert, you won’t do well. One recent British study found that as few as four drinks per week could impact cognitive performance and was associated with higher iron levels in the brain, a risk factor for degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The good news is that, in most cases, ditch the booze and your brain will bounce back. In one recent study that looked at heavy drinkers, within 18 days of abstinence, the majority of them saw their cognitive test scores return to normal. That’s a tip-off to the more subtle mental improvements that the moderate drinker can expect to enjoy by kicking or cutting back.

Heavy habits that weigh you down, literally. 

Especially for a lot of my female patients, a drinking habit and a healthy weight just do not mix. They often have a thin margin of error when it comes to their diet. The empty calories in alcohol – a nightly two glasses of wine could easily add up to 300 calories – can tip them into the weight-gain zone and do them no favors in the blood sugar department either. To top it off, women’s bodies just have a harder time dealing with alcohol than men’s. They metabolize it more slowly and their greater fat stores hold on to the toxic stuff for longer. But it’s more than that. You’ve heard me talk about the importance of mindfulness when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. To my mind, drinking encourages a kind of “mindlessness” that often spills over into sloppy eating and exercise habits. It can be the first “bad” domino that knocks over the rest. 

Alcohol: a punch to the gut.  

I firmly believe that a lot of alcohol’s ability to make us look and feel less than our best begins in the gut. The culprit is inflammation, the root of so much chronic sickness. The booze can be toxic to the good bacteria in the gut microbiome, directly promoting inflammation, felt locally as IBS-type symptoms. Or the effect can be indirect. Fewer good bacteria means they aren’t able to adequately protect the lining of the gut wall. The wall becomes more prone to tiny leaks (aka “leaky gut syndrome”) that let toxic stuff slip out of the gut and into the bloodstream, triggering a systemic inflammation that can show up anywhere, from skin eruptions to brain fog. Kick the booze, dial the inflammation way back. 

Look liquor in the face – it’s not pretty.

As I’ve said, for some of your parts, the downward pull of a regular alcohol habit can often escape detection, that is, until you quit and start to discover how much better you feel. Your skin, however, is the exception. The skin is all-too-good at bringing the inside out, making visible the damage that’s otherwise going on underneath the surface. It’s a one-two punch: inflammation and dehydration (alcohol is a diuretic) combine to unleash a host of ugly-looking skin conditions. One study found that drinking was associated with under-eye puffiness, midface volume loss, and blood vessels on the cheeks.” Not pretty. Other studies have made the link between heavy drinking and rosacea, psoriasis and, in some instances, skin cancer. A glowing complexion is one of the best advertisements I know for no or very low-level drinking. Don’t believe me? Look at the faces of your older relatives, particularly the hard-drinking ones, and consider choosing an alcohol-free route. 

DNA distress and alcohol go hand-in-hand. 

Alcohol enters the system in the form of ethanol and exits as carbon dioxide and water. But in middle of that metabolic assembly line, it’s acetaldehyde, which is toxic to our DNA, the body’s operating system, which is the main reason alcohol can harm your body in so many different ways. One type of DNA damage gives rise to cancer. We have an extensive research record that shows that drinkers are at higher risk for liver, colon and rectal cancer. Another sobering thought: the American Cancer Society estimates that alcohol contributes to almost 19,000 cancer deaths a year, which to my mind is a very big deal. So, can I promise you that if you quit drinking you’ll never get cancer? No, but the odds will be on your side. 

Another form of DNA damage? Cardiovascular problems. That may surprise you since for years booze has been coasting on its reputation as heart healthy, studies having found that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers. That fake narrative has recently been blown up. It was the other healthy things that the everything-in-moderation drinkers were doing – like exercising and keeping up an active social life – that was protecting them. All the booze did, for some of the more enthusiastic drinkers anyway, was promote DNA-related oxidative stress which drives high blood pressure and heart disease. And alcohol is implicated in a lot of the heart rhythm issues, especially afib, that I’m seeing in more and more of my middle-aged patients. 

The proof is in the … liver 

The liver does the heavy lifting when it comes to metabolizing and de-toxifying alcohol. And consequently, it’s the part of you that takes the biggest hit. Alcoholics often wind up with cirrhosis, a life-threatening and irreversible scarring inside the liver. But if, like most imbibers in this country, you haven’t lost control of your drinking habit, and your life, don’t think you’re completely off the hook. According to one recent research review, just two drinks a day over a five-year period could measurably impact liver health. Fortunately, the liver is near-miraculous in its ability to rebound from all but the most severe damage but regardless, you’d be wise to ditch booze altogether or at minimum, severely limit it to stay well clear of the danger zone. 

Re-set your relationship with alcohol 

I’m quite happy to not drink but I know that many of my patients who enjoy alcohol aren’t likely to completely quit any time soon. But I tell them it’s not that hard to mitigate the health damage by changing your mindset when it comes to booze. Start by training (or retraining) yourself not to drink every evening out of habit, just because it’s something you’ve gotten used to doing. Reserve alcohol for a special meal or a special evening, a once in a while treat instead of a mindless, daily default. And if you do have a nightly glass of wine (one small glass, please) at dinner, really savor it, mindfully, if you will. If your social life involves plenty of drinking, take care to alternate –for every alcoholic drink you consume, drink a glass of water or two, or a ‘mocktail ‘or non-alcoholic glass of wine. You might also think about trading drink dates for hiking or biking dates, or any other activity where drinking isn’t the focal point. However you go about it, feel free to start slow, to lessen the sting. Ease yourself into a tapering off for good and in time, you’ll likely find you don’t miss the hard stuff at all. 

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