Health Bite

Rethinking Alcohol: a Balanced Approach to the Decision to Consume

May 15, 2022 Dr. Adrienne Youdim
Health Bite
Rethinking Alcohol: a Balanced Approach to the Decision to Consume
Show Notes Transcript

Are you a casual alcohol drinker or are you the one who excessively consumes? How and why are you drinking? How much and how often?

As we go into living a life in this pandemic, studies show that alcohol consumption has become more widespread than before, especially in women, be that with casual or excessive drinking. However, physicians haven’t really talked about alcohol in a balanced perspective. All this time, most discussions are all about the negative effects of alcohol in our health and life.

So today, Dr. Adrienne educates us on both the benefits and detrimental impacts of alcohol consumption.

If you are someone who uses alcohol to take the edge off, then this episode is specially made for you! Take all the learnings and work to explore your relationship with alcohol.

Dr. Adrienne Youdim is a board-certified Internist and is the host of the podcast Health Bite. She specializes in medical weight loss and nutrition, and she is aiming to transform the weight loss narrative into one that is both empowering and compassionate – inspiring people to live more physically and emotionally fulfilling lives through evidence-based strategies that actually show results.

Through her podcast, Dr. Adrienne debunks all myths in the current weight loss culture and supports people in living the life they deserve as they work on becoming the best version of themselves.

In this episode, Dr. Adrienne gives a balanced perspective on alcohol as she shares both positive and negative impacts of alcohol consumption on our health and well being.


What you will learn from this episode:

  • What is the Mediterranean diet all about and what is it with alcohol that they find beneficial?
  • What are the positive and negative effects of alcohol consumption on our health?
  • How does alcohol affect our brain? Does it really take the edge off of work’s stress?


“You don't have to ‘be an alcoholic’ to be curious and to explore your relationship with alcohol.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim


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Key Takeaways:

“Question your labels. Question your biases and your judgment. And if you find that you have them, be mindful that they don't interfere with your ability to fully receive and use this information and to become better because of it.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim


“While we talk about the heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which includes alcohol, know that excessive consumption can actually cause stretching out of the heart muscle, and over time, cause the heart muscle and function to fail.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim

“Dig into the common humanity. Dig into the shared experience here, and meet yourself with comp

Resource mentioned:

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This is Health Bite, and I'm your host, Dr. Adrienne. This week, we are talking about alcohol.

If you've had any kind of relationship with alcohol, I promise, you are going to find this episode both intriguing and enlightening.

Welcome to Health Bite, the podcast dedicated to providing you small, actionable bites towards greater physical, mental, and emotional well being. The wellness and weight loss space is filled with nonsense and bogus claims. I created this podcast as an antidote to the noise, to provide you with no nonsense, evidence-based guidance in the areas of nutrition, fitness, habit change, and mindset that I use with my patients and clients in my medical practice every single day. I'm here to help you feel empowered for change.


And it's May. It's Mental Health Awareness month. And as a physician, I feel compelled to have this conversation with you today.




We're going to have a conversation about alcohol, and that is because for a long while, we, physicians, have been preaching and promoting the health benefits of alcohol – wine in particular – without really offering a balance in the conversation. I, personally, have done this knowingly, and I have data to support my claims; lots of data from Mediterranean countries showing health benefits to regular consumption of alcohol. And frankly, I use this data to support my own ritual. But knowing and understanding all the facts is important to personal decision-making. As I always say, knowledge is power.


But before we go any further, let me also say this. You don't have to “be an alcoholic” to be curious and to explore your relationship with alcohol. In our society, you're either an elegant drinker, completely poised and glamorous with a glass of champagne, or you're the guy or gal with a DUI. And honestly, there is something in between. And knowing that is really critical to having this conversation with yourself openly, honestly, and without judgment.


So as you listen to this episode, I want you to question your labels. Question your biases and your judgment. And if you find that you have them, be mindful that they don't interfere with your ability to fully receive and use this information and to become better because of it.




So first, let's talk about the positive data, much of which does come from the Mediterranean countries. And as a little segue, I want to talk a little bit about the Mediterranean diet, because I think it's important to understanding the whole story.


So, the Mediterranean diet is a dietary pattern, really – not a specific diet, but a pattern – that is used in countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea; countries including Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Milan, or Negro, Greece. And a ton of data has come out of these countries, studying their diet and their lifestyle and linking it to everything, including a reduction in diabetes, heart disease, dementia, Alzheimer's, depression, cancer, just to name a few of the things.


The Mediterranean diet, of course, consists of lots of fruits and vegetables. It also consists of lots of whole grains. Some are really surprised to hear that this diet, in fact, is really high carb-ed, and high quality carb that is, so it also consists of beans, legumes, high quality, high fiber grains, cereals, and breads. It also consists of the good fats, poly and monounsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, and the oils that come from these foods. The primary source of protein in these diets is typically fish, with poultry and eggs, some dairy, and very small amounts of red meat, like one to two times per month.

Sweets are consumed in moderation. And of course, alcohol is consumed in moderation.




So what is it about alcohol and wine in particular that we find so helpful?


Well, wine contains something called polyphenols. These are plant-based compounds that are also found in substances like berries, for example, tea, dark chocolate, and they've been shown to have really powerful antioxidant properties that are beneficial for health. One of these polyphenols – resveratrol, in particular – has been shown to have positive effects on longevity and disease prevention, because of its antioxidant effects, but also its anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic effects.


But one thing to consider is how much? How much wine does it require to achieve these benefits?


And in the Mediterranean diet, one serving is considered four ounces total for a female, and four to eight ounces total in men. Now, this discrepancy between men and women is put in there because of the way that we metabolize alcohol, but I also want to point out that there is some controversy as to whether there should be a difference between men and women. But that is typically what is consumed in the Mediterranean diet.


And so, the first point is that that is far less than the typical size of a US pour. Not to mention that it is one pour. So, one thing to consider is how many servings is one consuming daily or over the course of the week?




Also keep in mind that alcohol is one part of the Mediterranean diet. That is vastly different from the typical American or Western diet. We have to consider all the other aspects of this diet that are contributing to health, or even might be counteracting unhealthy behaviors if we were to assume that wine, for example, or alcohol consumption is unhealthy.


So for example, healthy fats, once again, are abundant in the Mediterranean diet, with near elimination of the unhealthy fats, like beef, butter, and other saturated fats. Sweets are very low in consumption. Processed foods are exceedingly low in a Mediterranean style diet, as compared to an American or a Western diet.


And we must consider other aspects of their lifestyle. For example, high levels of physical activity and labor are still a part of these countries’ lifestyles – at least they were when the studies were done.


And so, as always in nutrition studies, it's hard to tease out and separate that ‘it’ factor. All of this is to say that we may not be able to extrapolate the Mediterranean experience to the US, because there are other factors at play.




Now that we've gotten through that, let's take a look about the health effects of alcohol.


And the data shows that alcohol use, even in moderation, is not completely benign. In fact, alcohol consumption increases the risk of multiple cancers, including breast, colon, esophageal cancer, and head and neck cancers. And this one fact is really surprising; I found it surprising, which is that studies have shown that even one drink per night increases the risk of breast cancer by 15%. And the risk is dose-dependent, meaning that the risk of breast cancer increases with each additional drink.


The mechanism at work here might be the potential for weight gain that's associated with excessive alcohol use. So keep in mind that, of course, alcohol is empty calories. As discussed in prior episodes, alcohol also interferes with hunger hormones, making us literally more hungry the day after.


And so, we know that weight gain is an independent risk factor for breast cancer, so maybe that's the correlation or link. In addition, alcohol can increase estrogen and other hormones that are associated with breast cancer. And so there may be a hormonal link, which makes alcohol use more likely to be associated with breast cancer. So, there is that.


And alcohol, in much larger amounts, has been associated with other health concerns, and increased risk of pancreatitis, liver disease, and cardiomyopathy of the heart.


So while we talk about the heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which includes alcohol, know that excessive consumption can actually cause stretching out of the heart muscle, and over time, cause the heart muscle and function to fail.


But by and large, these risks are attributed to big drinkers, people who consume frequently and excessively. And of course, there are many reasons that if you are consuming frequently and excessively, you should take notice, not the least of which, is why you might be consuming or drinking frequently or excessively in the first place.




So if you happen to be that person, first, no judgment. Remember that we cannot shame our way into change, as the brilliant Brene Brown so eloquently says. And second, know that you're not alone.


In 2019, nearly 15 million people in the US were classified as having alcohol use disorder, that means some degree of drinking frequently and excessively that felt not within the person's control. And that data, mind you, is from before the pandemic. All studies and experiences have shown that that number has gone up. And in fact, one study showed that heavy drinking escalated by 41% in women during the pandemic. And it's not surprising, right? Given that alcohol, in essence, is a sanction drug. But what is important here is to understand that you're not alone.


So dig into the common humanity. Dig into the shared experience here, and meet yourself with compassion, not judgment, so that you can get the work done – the work that you can do, the work that you deserve to do for yourself, for your health, and for your mental, emotional, and physical well being.


If you don't know where to start, reach out. Reach out to a trusted friend. Reach out to a mental health professional and get the help that you need.


So, let's go back though to the casual drinker, because there's more to the story there too. Because what is one of the most common reasons outside of socializing that alcohol is used? To take the edge off, of course – to take the edge off work, to take the edge off parenting, to take the edge off difficult relationships, and to take the edge off of difficult emotions.


So let's look into this a little bit further. Does alcohol really take the edge off? It may help to understand a little bit about the physiology of alcohol. How does it really work?


So first of all, alcohol interacts with the same receptors in the brain as benzodiazepines. These are drugs like Ativan or Xanax that are prescribed to manage anxiety over the short term. And in the short term, alcohol, like these medications, will have sedative properties: feelings of ease, feelings of disinhibition, feelings of calm, and even evokes sleep. But while alcohol is known for the sedative effects, less known are its stimulatory effects, including increasing heart rate, anxiety, irritability, even anger and sometimes, violent behavior. So why is that?


Well, the brain doesn't really like being sedated and sleepy. So in response to the initial release of sedating neurotransmitters, there is also a release in stimulating neurotransmitters or hormones in the brain. And this change in neurochemistry is why people get anxious and irritable with alcohol.


But these things don't happen at the same time. The sedative qualities of alcohol do not happen at the same time as the stimulatory effects. They occur in tandem. So, one will first feel sedated and then later feel stimulated. And this, of course, impacts mood, but also impacts sleep. So, you may notice that when you drink, you experience sleepiness. People typically will feel sleepy when they first consume alcohol.


But you might also notice that while you may fall asleep soon after drinking that you awaken in the middle of the night. In fact, alcohol does this by causing disruptions in sleep architecture. So, alcohol actually disrupts both REM sleep and non-REM sleep. And so, this disruption will prevent deep sleep and will diminish the restorative quality of sleep. So sometimes people will awaken, they'll actually appreciate an awakening, but even if you don't actually awaken, that sleep quality is being disturbed, making people feel sleepy and groggy the next day.


The stimulatory effects of alcohol, again, is also why drinking causes irritability and anxiety often the morning after. And in fact, long term alcohol use reduces GABA and glutamate receptors in the brain. These are neurotransmitters that help regulate mood. And the change in the brain will make someone more excitable, more anxious, and more irritable overall.


So again, it shows that the brain is making changes to itself to compensate for the sedating qualities of alcohol; not to mention that alcohol in and of itself is a depressant. So here we are using a tool to help bring about a sense of ease, to “take the edge off”, but it is a depressant. Over time, it is causing the release of neurotransmitters and changing brain chemistry that causes greater anxiety and irritability, and it is affecting sleep, which in and of itself, causes depression, irritability, anxiety, not to mention other metabolic effects.


So another reason we drink, again, is to take the edge off of our work, whatever that work may be, right? School may be work or it may be work-work. And one of the downsides of alcohol is its impact on cognition.


So REM sleep is also a time where we consolidate memory, where we consolidate information. And when REM sleep is affected, we actually impair our ability to cement down memories and to cement down information; we impair our ability to consolidate information. And so in this way, alcohol actually impairs our learning and our cognition. In fact, studies have shown that alcohol affects our ability to acquire new information and to process this information deeply. It also slows down the rate of processing. So this doesn't only happen in the acute time frame. People do get slower reaction time, for example, gets slower when people are acutely inebriated or have drunk alcohol, but it actually affects processing overall, making it harder to learn and making it harder to focus.


And finally, we know that alcohol has other long term effects on the brain that impacts cognition. Alcohol increases the risk of long term memory disturbances and has been associated and linked to a higher risk of dementia, as well as, specifically, Alzheimer's disease.


One study revealed that an average glass of wine per day may in fact shrink the overall volume of the brain. So they studied individuals who drank one pint of beer or six ounces of wine per day over the course of a month, and compared them to those who drank less. And they showed, by doing scanning or MRI of the brain, that the brains of the drinkers appeared two years older than those who consumed half of a beer or equivalent per day. The brains of people who reported drinking three units of alcohol a day had reductions in both their gray matter and white matter of their brain, which was comparable to three and a half years of brain aging.


So this study was small and had its limitations, but the fact remains that alcohol consumption does affect our cognition and does impair the structure of the brain in a way that affects not only short term information processing, but also long term processing that can go on to lead to dementia and Alzheimer's.


So, I just want to point out again, because we do use alcohol to take the edge off, to take the edge off of work, to take the edge off of difficult emotions, but we're showing here that, really, what we're doing is increasing the stress that is associated with difficult mood, with difficult work, by impairing our ability to really do that work and manage those emotions in an effective way.




And so it's important to note, because there certainly has been a cultural shift in our relationship with alcohol.

We can find alcohol at all of our gatherings, right? It's there at our professional gatherings, at our social gatherings, at our family gatherings, at work events, at educational programs, at yoga classes, even kids’ birthday parties and playdates, we can find alcohol. In fact, a few months ago, I was running in a half marathon, after which I found a booth at the finish line handing out Bud Light. Honestly, it's kind of comical; the places and spaces in which we can find an abundance of alcohol. And casual drinking has really become a part of every cultural and social space we inhabit – a shift that's become even more pervasive during the pandemic and post pandemic, if we can call ourselves that right now.




So, I'm not really suggesting that we revisit prohibition; I don't think that would work. And I'm not suggesting even that moderate consumption is necessarily an issue. I am suggesting, though, that we take our heads out of the sand and really ask ourselves some hard questions. How and why are we drinking? How much and how often? And how is this impacting our mental, emotional well being? If not, our physical health?


Remember that you don't need to be drinking a Martini for breakfast to reflect on these questions, right? And your ability to reflect on these questions open mindedly and without judgment is the window to having the kind of relationship with alcohol that you want to have. This type of radical honesty is the only way to engage in meaningful change, whether we are drinking excessively, eating excessively, texting, scrolling, binge watching excessively, working out compulsively, or doing any of the other habitual compulsive activities that are slowly chipping away at our well being. Keep that in mind.


I hope that you found this episode to be useful.


I welcome you to head over to where you will find a ton of personally created and curated content for you. There's lots of information there, lots of resources to help you level up your health and well being. You can also find a link to the newly created mood pack which contains my favorite mood enhancing supplements including ashwagandha; I absolutely love this ancient and powerful plant-based herb. You can also find in there Omega probiotics, as well as a 30 day journaling course – all tools to help enhance your mood, mind, and body inside and out. What can be better than that?


I hope, once again, this has been helpful to you. I hope you've enjoyed this episode.

I wish you an excellent week, and I look forward to seeing you again next week on Health Bite.


Until then.

Bye now.