We all know that alcohol is safest when had in moderation, but do you ever wonder why a few glasses can affect some people much more than others? (*Everyone has that friend, or it could be you, who seems to have a ‘lower tolerance’ or 'booze brain'.)
Some studies claim that a glass of red wine a night can help with heart health, thanks to antioxidants that may help prevent coronary artery disease (1), while other research says that most people get a kind of placebo effect when having a nightcap which ‘helps’ them take the edge off of stresses and feel less overwhelmed. However any links between these claims and fewer heart attacks or improved health aren't completely understood.
So how much is too much? Can we actually enjoy drinking moderately and reap some health benefits, mentally or emotionally? To understand how to stop overindulging and not put ourselves in the position of dealing with hangovers very often, we must first understand what alcohol does to the brain.
Effect of alcohol on the brain
Once ethanol is consumed, the body does its best to break it down with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) which turns it into acetaldehyde – a highly toxic carcinogen. Excessive levels of acetaldehyde increase the production of reactive oxidative species by the mitochondrion (the energy-producing powerhouses of our cells) and can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction starving the body and brain of the very energy it needs, and can cause inflammation in the body and the brain. Acetaldehyde can also cause an imbalance in the neurotransmitters such as serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine and noradrenalin which affect brain processing and how we feel.
We all know the damage it can cause and how hard it is to deal with hangover symptoms like a throbbing head, fatigue, cognitive impairment, inability to concentrate and strong feelings of anxiety and low mood. If your detoxification enzymes are doing their job, and you don’t have any gene mutations that reduce alcohol breakdown in the body, acetaldehyde is transformed into acetate by aldehyde dehydrogenase, and because acetate is produced in a lot of other metabolic reactions in the body, levels can become high. Acetate is considered a less toxic substance but this can also contribute to that horrible hangover headache.
So if your headache lessens temporarily when you have a cup of coffee or a strong cup of tea, then it’s possible it’s the acetate causing your headache. This is because caffeine can block the head pain. Acetate is broken down in our bodies by the Citric Acid Cycle, the same metabolic pathway that breaks down macronutrients for energy.
How to protect yourself from toxic effects of alcohol
Now that we know how alcohol affects the brain, it’s only understandable that we inform ourselves of the best tips to protect ourselves from going overboard. In the real world, it can be difficult to avoid drinking (*especially during the holidays), but you can use the following to protect yourself from the damage of too much booze and avoid a hangover with a few things you can do before, during and after:
1. Drink the least toxic alcohol
Here is the list of alcoholic drinks from best to worst: vodka, gin, tequila, whiskey, other distilled spirits, dry cider, dry champagne, dry white wine, white wines, red wines, dessert wines, beer. Yes, red wine has antioxidants in it such as resveratrol but not enough to have any real benefit.
2. Drink a glass of water in between every drink
This helps to dilute the effect of the toxins you are consuming through your beverages. Keeping hydrated lowers your chances of feeling hungover the next day and will help you recover a lot faster. Make it a rule to chase every drink you have with a tall glass of water.
3. Know your supplements
Some supplements can help support the detoxification process such as N-Acetyl Cysteine, liposomal glutathione, molybdenum and vitamin C before and after drinking. Niacinamide Riboside (form of vitamin B3) can support the Krebs Cycle to efficiently metabolise acetate, reduce the headache and give your liver the energy to detoxify the nasties. Alcohol greatly depletes B vitamins, especially B1 and B6, so increasing/replacing levels in the body is of great importance. Also, activated charcoal can bind other toxins produced from drinking alcohol in the gut for excretion, removing them from the body, and has been known to work when drinking wine, beer and dark liquors.
Obviously, not drinking is the safest option for your health and wellbeing however in the real world, especially during this holiday season (*or as a general rule), make sure that you are protecting yourself with these top tips. If you do drink then please do so responsibly and always consult your nutritional therapist/doctor before taking any new supplements.