“I’ve always taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as punishment”John Steinbeck
“One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!” Many of us have unfortunately been there: one drink turns into too many drinks, and the next day, you’re left with a throbbing headache, aches and pains, and a poor mood that no amount of cold showers, water, or greasy food can completely eliminate. It sure feels like punishment!
If you choose to drink, you may feel pulled between wanting to have a more lighthearted time with friends and the knowledge that alcohol will leave you regretful later. Even more so, you know that alcohol has deleterious effects on your overall health. But what *exactly* does alcohol do, and how? And what can you do about it?
In this blog, we’ll cover why alcohol gives you those throbbing headaches the next day, its long-term effects on your body, and the first steps you can take towards decreasing alcohol’s effects on your body.
The Science of Hangovers
Alcohol causes short and long-term damage to your body due to the compound called acetaldehyde: it is what is formed when alcohol (ethanol) breaks down inside of your gut. Acetaldehyde is a carcinogen—it degenerates DNA and generates free radicals. Our bodies do not have effective mechanisms to break down acetaldehyde, so it’s able to wreak havoc via headaches, nausea, anxiety changes, and more. On the whole, exposure to acetaldehyde leads to increased inflammation and suppression of bodily repair processes. And over time, this can cause cancer, cirrhosis, stroke, and more.
Long-Term Health Effects
Regular alcohol consumption has a myriad of ill health effects. Studies have shown that consuming alcohol increases the risk for oral, esophageal, breast, liver, colon, and tracheal cancers. Moreover, alcohol can lead to the development of heart disease and in particular, increase the chances of having a stroke. It also has harmful effects on the brain: long-term drinking can lead to the development of various neurodegenerative diseases.
If you’re freaked out by all this, you might be wondering: Well, what’s the boundary of unhealthy versus healthy amounts to consume?
Twelve to 15 drinks per week is considered “problem drinking” by the NIH, and puts you at risk for the aforementioned health issues. However, recent research has also shown that lesser amounts—just one drink per day—can still increase your risk of developing different cancers and negative health effects from alcohol.
The takeaway here is not to never imbibe again. Though for some health issues, your doctor may strongly recommend going sober. It’s always good to discuss your drinking habits with your medical provider and get their recommendations for your specific health. The main takeaway is to be mindful of your drinking, and to reduce its potential harm on your body wherever possible.
One route to this reduction in harm is drinking less. It’s good to track how much you drink—many of us may be at that 12-15 drinks per week mark without even realizing it. Try to cut your drinking by 30%, and notice how you feel. Or only imbibe (modestly) on weekends when out with family/friends and on special occasions. But if you’re like me and can’t stop at one drink, it may be best to quit altogether. It’s done wonders for my liver and pocketbook!
Supplements to Support Your Body
Another way to reduce the health harms of alcohol is to equip your body with compounds to counter what alcohol generates or diminishes. We’ve listed the most impactful supplements below:
Probiotics that Break Down Acetaldehyde
I was impressed to read about this company called ZBiotics. They make a probiotic supplement that has been genetically engineered to break down acetaldehyde—something your body can’t do on its own. This leads to a vast reduction in hangover symptoms; most people report having no hangover the next day. Moreover, this also means that the inflammation and gut irritation caused by alcohol is curbed, because acetaldehyde isn’t given the freedom to run rampant in the body. As an experiment, I bought a box of these probiotics and offered them to my family members. They ALL reported feeling less hangover-y and headachy the next day after a LONG night out.
You can learn more about ZBiotics at the link here. Each probiotic serving is about the cost of a beer at your local brewery—but worth every penny if you want to feel good the next day.
Acetaldehyde’s harmful effects are partially mediated by its interference with the nutrients your body needs to fight oxidation, suppress carcinogenic genes, and maintain brain health. In particular, important nutrients for these functions are vitamin B6, B1, and B3, or pyridoxine, niacin, and thiamine, respectively. Boosting your levels of B vitamins can decrease your risk of developing cancer and in more extreme cases, reverse Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a specific disease typically seen with thiamine deficiency in heavy alcohol users. Adding a B vitamin into your regime is a simple step to curbing alcohol’s negative effects.
We recommend the Thorne Stress B-Complex, which you can find at the link here.
As previously mentioned, alcohol zaps the body’s antioxidant fighting power. In this process, it depletes the body of vitamin C, which is otherwise helpful in controlling inflammation and releasing other vitamins, like vitamin E, in the body. As acetaldehyde increases harmful oxidation in the body, it’s important to fuel up on antioxidants like vitamin C—both regularly, and after a night of drinking—to restore your body’s antioxidant power.
We recommend NOW Acerola Powder (a more bioavailable form of vitamin C) which you can find here.
N-acetylcysteine, also called NAC, is able to essentially ‘soak up’ acetaldehyde while also boosting glutathione in the body. Glutathione is a major antioxidant in the body which helps remove toxins; unfortunately acetaldehyde cuts the levels and function of glutathione, as with other antioxidants. So consuming NAC before a night out to prepare your body with glutathione and trap acetaldehyde is a good idea.
We recommend the Nutricost NAC powder; you can learn more at the link here.
There are combos out there designed for managing alcohol—here’s one that is popular.
Bear in mind: These are ways to make alcohol consumption LESS toxic. Alcohol has overarching toxic effects on your body, so consume mindfully! If and when you choose to imbibe, incorporate these tips to prevent hangovers.