The health effects of alcohol on your body

Alcohol has a complex association with health - the key is to be mindful of the effects it can have on your body.
Published 6 March 2019

What happens to our bodies when we drink?

Alcohol has a complex association with health. According to a 2018 study published in The Lancet—one of the most detailed researches done into the effects of alcohol—it’s linked to 60 acute and chronic diseases, from alcohol poisoning to fatty liver disease and cancers in the gastrointestinal tract. Its negative health impacts far outweigh the positives. When you have a drink, the alcohol gets absorbed into your bloodstream about 5-10 minutes after reaching your stomach and travels to your brain, where it creates a euphoric buzz. Professor Amanda Lee, a senior advisor at the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre at the Sax Institute, explains alcohol then travels to the liver. There, it’s metabolised through pathways that rely on two enzymes. First, alcohol gets broken down into a chemical called acetaldehyde, “a known carcinogen and the source of several health concerns around alcohol” says Less. This is then converted into acetate, a substance that can generate energy.

How can alcohol affect our health?

Alcohol is a toxin to the body and evidence shows its metabolism gets fast-tracked, so food goes to the back of the digestion queue. Alcohol is also tough on the brain, Lee says. It can lead to slurred speech, difficulty walking, slower reaction times, impaired judgement and decision-making, and a decrease in memory. According to the UK’s independent alcohol education charity Drinkaware, alcohol can also disturb your sleep, leaving you tired no matter how long you sleep for. While you may fall asleep quicker after a drink, you’ll have a lighter, more restless sleep. Plus, alcohol is a diuretic, so you’ll sweat more and become dehydrated.

Why do people drink alcohol?

Clinical psychologist Dr Lyndel Abbott says drinking has become part of our cultural fabric. “We’ve grown up around alcohol, seen it in the media, and often had some pleasant—and not-so-pleasant—experiences relating to it,” she says. Alcohol may also help us relax in social situations that initially feel uncomfortable, temporarily reduce social anxiety and increase confidence. “Peer pressure can play a role as well, with potential for the underlying assumption that ‘fun people drink and I’m boring if I don’t’,” says Abbott.

Does alcohol cause weight gain?

At 29kJ per gram, alcohol is second only to fat in energy density. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, it’s also low in nutrients and may lead to weight gain. “The energy it contains is nearly double what you have in sugar,” warns Lee. Drinks like cider and alcopops are also loaded with sugar, packing a huge kilojoule punch. Premix bourbon and coke, for example, contains 1066kJ. That’s the same energy as three bananas, but without any benefits for your hunger or health.

Alcohol doesn’t always lead to weight gain though, says Lee. It comes down to energy in versus energy out. “It depends on how much you drink, if you’re having food with your alcohol, whether you’re out dancing and expending some energy or sitting in front of the TV drinking.” Alcohol can also make you hungry. In a 2017 study published in Nature Communications, alcohol was shown to push the brain into starvation mode. And in tests on mice, researchers from the Francis Crick Institute in the UK identified a neuronal area which, when activated by alcohol, told the brain to eat more.

What causes hangovers?

A hangover hits when your blood alcohol concentration approaches zero. Symptoms vary but a 2011 survey of 1420 hungover Dutch students reported the most common as fatigue, thirst, drowsiness, headache, dry mouth, nausea, weakness, reduced alertness and concentration problems. Dehydration is one of the main causes of these symptoms. According to the UK site Drinkaware, alcohol suppresses the anti-diuretic hormone vasopressin, a process that makes you urinate more – and leads to thirst, headaches and a dry mouth. Alcohol also irritates the stomach and intestines, leading to nausea, and triggers an inflammatory response in your immune system. This can cause cognition-related symptoms such as poor concentration and memory issues.

Plan ahead for celebrations

A full, flourishing life is about balance – and that includes celebrating with friends and family. The recommended intake of alcohol for healthy adults is a maximum of two standard drinks on any day, with at least two alcohol-free days per week. If you do choose to drink, here are some tips to help you manage your Points Budget:

  • Eat before you drink

When your stomach contains food, it takes longer for alcohol to diffuse into your system.

  • Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water with your alcohol to avoid dehydration. You can also alternate alcoholic drinks with water or a diet soft drink.

  • Be mindful of food high in salt

Not only is too much salt unhealthy, according to the Dietitians Association of Australia, salty foods may increase the likelihood of drinking more alcohol because they make you feel thirsty.

Lower Point drinks

Smarter options to factor into your Budget include:

DrinkPoints per serve
Champagne or sparkling white wine (150ml)4
Red or white wine (150ml)4
Vodka & soda (150ml)2
Light beer (375ml)3