Navigating alcohol and how to handle hangovers
It is no surprise that alcohol isn’t great for us, but why is this? As with everything, moderation is key, but let’s take a look at what alcohol is and what is actually going on when we order that extra glass of vino.
Alcohol (Ethanol) contains 7 calories per 1 gram (per 1ml) meaning that gram for gram is has more calories than protein and carbohydrate. Ethanol occurs naturally when glucose is fermented by yeast, and it has been enjoyed for thousands of years for both its taste and for the ‘psycho-pharmacological’ effect it has on us (lowered inhibitions and all that…). Ethanol can appear in our blood just 5 minutes after consumption and as soon as it enters our blood stream, our livers get to work. Ethanol needs to be broken down by our livers so that it is no longer toxic for us, but also so we can turn the ethanol into energy to be used (calories).
Not only can alcohol encourage us to make silly life choices… but alcohol can have a significant impact on our food choices too. When you drink, your liver struggles to control your blood sugars because it’s too busy processing the alcohol. As your blood sugars start to drop, it can cause strong carbohydrate and sugar cravings. Think of a time when you had that glass of pre-dinner wine, did you grab for that extra slice of bread, or did you find yourself ordering the risotto instead of salad? Don’t worry, biology was against you there.
Alcohol has also been shown to affect both quality and quantity of sleep. This doesn’t just mean feeling a big groggy next day, but the knock-on effect on food choices can be noticeable. When we are sleep deprived from alcohol (or otherwise) we have disturbances in our hunger hormones meaning that you can spend most of the next day feeling constantly hungry but that when you do eat, you are not satisfied. This can wreak havoc when weight loss is your goal! When trying to lose weight, its handy to cut alcohol out or to at least reduce it significantly. This is not only to reduce calories, but to cut the cravings and food choices we make when drinking.
Alcohol also acts as a diuretic meaning that is causes dehydration. Dehydration not only makes us feel tired, but it can cause that dreaded alcohol headache we are all too familiar with. Because alcohol is so dehydrating, drinking actually increases your fluid requirements. So, for every boozy drink you consume, you should be drinking an extra non-alcoholic drink. Rule of thumb: one wine, one water.
Fear not, the government have provided us with guidelines to help us moderate our drinking and to help reduce the risk of disease associated with drinking. Sadly, excessive amounts of alcohol consumption not only damages our liver and brain, but it has been shown to significantly increase the risk of an array of cancers including breast and bowel cancer. So, suck it up and try to stick to the guidance; both men and women should drink no more than 14 units per week, we should have at least two alcohol free days and you should try to spread your units across the week.
I’m not here to tell you to never drink again, but if you were able to reduce your intake of alcohol it would not only see benefits in liver function, but you would be spending less money, consuming fewer calories and making better food choices . . . Though a few glasses of rosé in the sun are a necessity this summer.
Example Alcohol Units:
- Pint 4% lager - 2.3 Units, 180kcal
- 25ml Single unit Gin: 1.4 units, 72kcal
- 125ml Champagne: 1.5 units, 90kcal
- 175ml Red wine: 2.1 units, 170kcal
Ok, say you did drink too much…..? Well we have certainly all had too much to drink and one stage or another, but is there anything that can actually do to help a hangover? Firstly, it really depends on how much you had to drink as to how hungover you feel! But the tell-tale symptoms of a hangover tend to be related to dehydration because alcohol acts as a diuretic. This tends to leave us with symptoms of dehydration including headaches, tiredness and reduced ability to concentrate. One of the best ways to try and combat this is to make sure that with every alcoholic drink you try to drink one non-alcoholic drink.
If all else fails, try to rehydrate as best you can the next day! This means drinking lots of water as well as electrolytes to help with rehydration. When we say electrolytes, we are referring to sodium, potassium, chloride and bicarbonate; these are found in food and drink and are essential for rehydrating. By adding fruit and/or vegetables to your hangover meal, you can be sure to include these all-important electrolytes. Why not try a green smoothie, adding tomatoes to your fry up, or that side of salty fries? We know what one we would choose…
Adding fruit and veg not also contributes electrolytes, but their vitamin C and antioxidant content supports the breakdown of alcohol. Our bodies naturally produce glutathione which is an anti-oxidant that breaks down the hangover-causing toxin, acetaldehyde. By eating certain foods, we can increase our natural glutathione levels. These foods include vitamin C containing foods (green leafy vegetables and fruit), cysteine containing foods (dietary protein foods like eggs, meat and fish) and sulphur containing foods such as broccoli, kale, watercress and garlic.
When processing alcohol, our livers can become a little distracted and they drop the ball on stabilising our blood sugars. When this happens, it usually causes us to crave carbohydrate containing foods to bring our blood sugars back to normal. Simply include carbohydrates the next day to help you to bring your blood sugarsback up! Try to choose low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates like wholegrain bread, root vegetables, oats, rye or grains. This helps to bring your blood sugars back up at a steady rate, and keep them managed throughout the day. Choosing high GI carbohydrates will feel great at the time, but they may start you on that tiring blood sugar rollercoaster all day!
Where you can, try to include some healthy fats from foods such as nut, nut butters, seeds olives, oily fish or avocadoes. This is because drinking alcohol increases blood triglyceride levels and increases ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. By eating heart-healthy fats can promote ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. If you choose to include omega-3 fats from oily fish, walnuts or chia seeds, you can also help to reduce any inflammation caused by drinking!
So what does this tell us? Smashed avocado with eggs on wholegrain toast with tomatoes and a glass of water will do just fine! Problem solved.