Dry January is observed by one in seven Americans. And with all the exciting new developments in the non-alcoholic beverage industry, skipping booze for a month has never been more enjoyable.
This kind of lifestyle shift, even a temporary one, encourages drinkers to take a look at the role alcohol plays in their lives and in their overall health. In fact, many people celebrating Dry January find that kicking alcohol to the curb makes them feel better in general.
So what exactly does alcohol consumption do to our bodies? Does drinking regularly (even in small doses) make a major impact on our health? We chatted with Dr. Amy Lee, Head of Nutrition for Nucific, and Allison Arnett, registered dietician and lecturer at the University of New Haven, to unpack exactly how alcohol affects us.
How Does Alcohol Impact Your Health?
You may have heard warnings about the way alcohol can damage the liver, but it can also affect organs throughout your entire body. And it starts as soon as you take a sip. “Alcohol is first absorbed in the stomach and then it passes through the liver via the blood stream,” says Lee.
Once it enters the liver, alcohol begins to break down with the help of enzymes—namely alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. “These enzymes break down alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is then broken down to acetate and finally into water and carbon dioxide,” Arnett says.
Medical research, including a 2019 study at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that heightened levels of acetate play a role in developing alcohol dependency and cravings. Studies also suggest that acetate can directly affect the health of your gut microbiome.
While this process primarily happens in the liver, Lee says that alcohol byproducts like acetate also impact organs like the heart and brain as they travel through the bloodstream. Arnett adds that these can increase the risk of multiple health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and even certain cancers.
Is It Healthy To Consume Alcohol Daily?
It’s easy to shy away from all this science talk if you don’t consider yourself a heavy drinker. But Arnett says that these health risks can become a problem if you drink in excess—either on one occasion or over time. Current guidelines recommend a daily maximum of two drinks for men and one for women (with the obvious exception for those who are pregnant or have existing conditions that preclude drinking).
Both Lee and Arnett say that there’s reason to believe that those guidelines are still a bit too generous. “There is evidence to support that alcohol should be consumed less frequently than this,” Arnett says.
“Daily alcohol consumption can cause cellular and tissue damage and depending on amount, can cause what we call oxidative stress and inflammation,” Lee explains. “But also, in the bigger picture, because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it can affect the way one makes decisions and their motor skills.”
But ultimately, the decision to drink and the way you do it is a personal choice. Every body has its own unique boundaries and limits, but medical experts overwhelmingly agree that alcohol should be consumed responsibly and in moderation. Lee encourages drinkers to be self-aware of how much alcohol they’re putting in their bodies. And, unlike Dry January, that advice applies year round.