Can you drink alcohol but stay healthy?

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Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed drugs in the world. 85.6% of adult Americans report that they had tried alcohol in their lifetime, and nearly 70% say that they had had at least one drink in the past year.

While it’s completely possible to enjoy a healthy and balanced relationship with alcohol, few of us may truly know the extremely varying effects that having low, moderate or excessive levels of alcohol in our system may have on our health. 

In this article, we take a look at exactly what alcohol does to us, how we can plan to drink more healthily, and whether some alcohols are better for us than others.

Is alcohol really that bad for you?

Unfortunately, yes. Alcohol affects the body in a number of ways, and nearly all of them are bad for you.

However, just how bad the effect is really depends on a number of factors. How much are you drinking? How often are you drinking? What are you drinking? And what else are you doing in your life in terms of exercise and diet to compensate for it?

Let’s take a look at exactly what alcohol does to our system, and how much you can safely drink.

How much alcohol can you drink per week?

No more than 7 drinks per week for women, or 14 drinks per week for men.

We’re going to assume that you’re drinking alcohol in moderate measures. That means that if you’re a woman, you’re consuming no more than 7 drinks per week. That means 7 glasses of wine, or 7 pints of beer, or 7 shots of spirits, spread out in sessions of no more than 3 at a time. If you’re a man, typically you can have 14 drinks per week, as long as you have no more than 4 drinks per day.

Drinking any more than this is classified as alcohol abuse, which has been directly linked to causing liver disease, lung disease, compromised immune function, low bone density, endocrine disorders, and changes in the brain. 

If you find yourself needing a drink of alcohol to calm down or unwind, or that you have strong urges to drink during the morning or throughout the day, you may have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. We’d strongly advise you to consult a medical professional to get some help, or if you prefer, contact an anonymous support group to put you on the right track. We’ve included a short list of some of these that you can find in different countries at the end of this article.

Can alcohol make you put on weight?

Yes, as alcohol typically contains a lot of excess calories. But that’s not the only reason why you might end up with a beer belly.

Alcohol interferes with your regular energy mechanism. Once alcohol is in your body, it will become a preferred source of fuel. This means you will burn off any alcohol in your system as a priority before your body goes back to its daily business of burning fat and processing proteins and carbohydrates.

A study has shown that drinking excess alcohol (e.g. more than 5 glasses of beer in 30 mins, or 4 shots of vodka) decreased total body fat oxidation by 79%, protein oxidation by 39%, and almost completely abolished the 249% rise in carbohydrate oxidation.[1] In other words, your body is busy working on processing the alcohol, and can’t burn any excess energy. As a result you will put on weight. 

Does alcohol affect your blood glucose levels?

Yes, but it really depends on how much you’re drinking, what you’re drinking (avoid sugary cocktails or mixers), and is much worse if you’re on a calorie-restricted, time-restricted or low carb diet.

Alcohol causes your blood glucose levels to drop below healthy levels (also known as hypoglycemia). When you drink alcohol your liver is busy detoxifying it, so it can’t release any stored glucose or glycogen.[2] After you’ve had 48g alcohol, which is the equivalent of four glasses of wine or four pints of beer, your body’s glucose production rate decreases by approximately 45%, which causes hypoglycemia. If you drink a more moderate amount of alcohol, your body’s glucose production rates may decrease by more like only 12%, which makes you less far likely to suffer a glucose dip. But if your glucose stores are already depleted, it’s possible you will see a glucose dip anyway. This is especially common for people drinking alcohol while also following keto or other low carbohydrate diets, and for those who are doing intermittent fasting.

How do I know if I’m suffering from hypoglycemia (low blood glucose)?

When your blood glucose dips below a healthy level, you are likely to first feel the effects in your mood. You may feel tired, have low energy, low motivation, lower productivity, and could suddenly find yourself feeling more irritable and having mood swings. If you suddenly feel like the IQ levels of everyone around you just dropped 20 points, you may want to check your glucose levels before you do (or say!) anything drastic.


However, if you’re drinking a carbohydrate-rich alcoholic beverage such as beer, you may conversely see your glucose levels rise. That is because when you consume alcohol and carbs at the same time, the body prefers to use alcohol as its fuel source at the expense of any energy it could be getting from the carbohydrates. This then pushes your blood glucose levels up and could cause hyperinsulinemia.

The true extent to which alcohol can affect your blood glucose levels is highly individualized, and really depends on your own personal metabolism and general health. The safest way to make sure you know how alcohol is affecting your body is by using a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) and accessing the data using HELLO INSIDE’s app.

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Alcohol contains ethanol, which in low to moderate quantities can act as a psychoactive drug that relaxes your brain and induces euphoria. Higher quantities can lead to exhaustion, depression, dehydration, nausea, and loss of consciousness.

All of this depends on how high your blood alcohol concentration is, and the line between low and high amounts of alcohol is very thin. The effect alcohol has on your brain is also likely to change over time, as your body processes the alcohol. That means while you might feel on top of the world at the pub or while tearing up the dance-floor, by the time you get home you may start to feel very low.

We are all highly individual when it comes to how our bodies respond to alcohol. Two people sharing a bottle of wine between them may have very different reactions to the alcohol contained in half a bottle, depending on their individual metabolic, physiological, and cognitive circumstances. Their reaction also greatly depends on whether they’re eating while drinking alcohol, and what they are eating in particular.

Having alcohol in your system is likely to impair your mental functions such as your ability to pay attention or be vigilant,[3] which is why drinking and driving is a serious offence in most countries in the world. However, the effect of this can already begin to be seen when your blood alcohol levels reach as low as 0.02-0.03%. These are much lower levels than what is legally considered to be intoxication in most countries, which for driving is generally 0.05% in most of Europe, and 0.08% in England and Wales. 

Alcohol directly impairs your memory, your ability to plan, and your ability to process language and information. People with alcohol in their system are more likely to act aggressively, impulsively, and feel disinhibited in social scenarios. Alcohol is also more likely to lead you to make bad decisions.

Does alcohol help you sleep better?

Alcohol helps you to feel sleepy, but actually means you’ll get a worse night’s sleep. 

Having a few drinks may make you feel drowsy and woozy. This is because alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, which causes your brain activity to slow down and directly affects your thought processes, behavior and emotions. 

Drinking alcohol may make you feel sleepier, because it has a sedative effect.[4] However, alcohol has been proven to directly negatively impact your quality of sleep, meaning that you’re unlikely to get a proper night’s rest. Once you’re asleep, having alcohol in your system will go on to cause frequent nighttime and early morning awakenings, significantly interrupting your sleep pattern.[5] 

Your body’s response to alcohol with regards to sleep is highly individual, and depends on several factors such as age, gender, and your general fitness and physical activity level. It also varies depending on the type of alcohol you’re drinking (e.g. spirits, wine, or beer), and how much of it you drink. Yet drinking alcohol does affect your body’s ability to recover and rest during the night. A bad night’s sleep can directly affect your blood glucose levels the next day, and also indirectly if you find yourself eating more carbohydrates and sugar to ward off your hangover.

Can you stay fit and healthy while drinking alcohol?

There’s a reason why many professional athletes avoid drinking alcohol at all, but living a generally fit, healthy and active lifestyle can somewhat alleviate the effects of drinking.

Alcohol is likely to impair muscular work capacity and as a result, decrease your overall performance levels (such as running and cycling times). Alcohol also affects your body’s ability to regulate its temperature while exercising,[6] such as through sweating, and means that you are likely to tire and face fatigue faster when doing high-intensity exercise.

Drinking even small amounts of alcohol may compromise your body’s fuel supply for normal aerobic energy production by lowering muscle glycogen and decreasing leg-muscle glucose uptake. This means that it’s extra hard to build strength and muscle mass while continuing to drink, even moderately and socially. 

However, low quantities of alcohol have been proven to have little or no effect on muscle protein balance. But if you drink in excess, especially if you do so repeatedly, chronic alcohol abuse will decrease your basal muscle protein synthesis.[7]

Small amounts of alcohol can also negatively affect your psychomotor skills,[8] which will impair your ability to play sports and affect your work-out technique and performance. Low amounts of alcohol (up to 0.05g per 100ml in your blood) result in increased hand tremors, slower reaction times and decreased hand-eye coordination. Moderate levels of alcohol (from 0.06g to 0.10g per 100ml in your blood) further amplify these factors, while also decreasing accuracy, balance, and impairing your tracking, visual search, recognition and response skills. 

However, in moderate doses there are some beneficial effects of having alcohol in your system through psychobiological mechanisms. In moderate quantities, alcohol can decrease pain and anxiety levels, which may be an advantage when it comes to playing certain sports.

Is drinking spirits healthier than drinking wine or beer?

Straight spirits often have less sugar than cocktails, mixers, beer or wine, but have much higher volumes of alcohol which makes it harder to moderate your consumption.

Some people opt for drinking spirits such as vodka, gin or whiskey over lower-alcohol options such as wine or beer because they see these to be ‘healthier’ options. These spirits in particular are free of sugars and carbohydrates, which means that they contain a lower quantity of calories than sugar-rich wine or beer, making them good options for people on diets such as keto.

However, it is important to bear in mind that the concentration of alcohol in spirits is much higher than in beer or wine. A 50ml measure of vodka contains around the same amount of alcohol as a pint of 4% beer.

Therefore, you may find it harder to keep track of how much alcohol you’re consuming when drinking relatively small measures of spirits, compared with large pints of beer. That means that if you’re not careful, drinking spirits may lead to you consuming excessive amounts of alcohol than when drinking beer or wine.

The big difference is really to be seen in your blood glucose levels. While drinking spirits may lead to lower glucose levels and even hypoglycemia, drinking carb and sugar-rich beer and wine may lead to the opposite effect. To see how this affects you individually, we recommend that next time you head to the bar with your friends, you monitor your glucose levels using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and track your data on HELLO INSIDE’s app.

How long does alcohol stay in your system?

Calculate around two hours for each pint of beer / glass of wine / shot.

If you’re reading this after a particularly heavy night out and are starting to worry about how long you’ll have to live with the consequences for, don’t worry! Most people pass the alcohol through their system relatively quickly, meaning your body won’t be under the effects of alcohol for too long.

How quickly your body will be able to remove alcohol from your system depends on your gender and your weight. Someone weighing 70kg should expect to be able to remove around 7g of alcohol per hour, which means that it should take just about two hours to remove one pint of beer from your system.

While this is happening, your body’s likely to feel dehydrated, and also to start noticing the lack of other nutrients (like salt) that you’d normally be feeding it with that you’ve substituted with a night at the pub. This is called a hangover. Drink water and eat healthy and nutritious meals until you start to feel better again. It’s also not a good idea to start doing any vigorous exercise until your body’s 100% back to normal, as you’ll need your thermoregulation and aerobic fuel supplies to be fully restored. So you may want to skip the gym the day after you’re recovering from a heavy night of drinking.

So can you drink alcohol in a healthier way?

Yes and no.

As you’ve seen, alcohol has multiple complex and negative effects on your body, well-being and glucose levels. 

But if you are going to have a drink, there are some choices you can make to avoid giving your body a blood-glucose roller coaster.

Drink wine (of any color!), champagne, or spirits on the rocks or mixed with soda water or a sugar-free mixer. That at least helps you to avoid having any added sugars in your system.

Try to avoid beer and sugary cocktails, which typically can spike your blood glucose.

Stay hydrated by aiming for one glass of water for each alcoholic drink you have, try not to drink on an empty stomach, and make sure you get enough rest to allow your body to recover.

And remember it takes your body around two hours to remove one pint of beer from your system, so try to keep track of how much you’re having!

Support groups for alcoholism:

Alcoholics Anonymous (USA)

Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain

Suchthilfe (Germany)

Blaues Kreuz (Austria)




[1] Shelmet JJ, Reichard GA, Skutches CL, Hoeldtke RD, Owen OE, Boden G. Ethanol causes acute inhibition of carbohydrate, fat, and protein oxidation and insulin resistance. J Clin Invest. 1988;81(4):1137-1145. doi:10.1172/JCI113428

[2] van de Wiel A. Diabetes mellitus and alcohol. Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 2004;20(4):263-267. doi:10.1002/dmrr.492

[3] Oscar-Berman M, Marinković K. Alcohol: effects on neurobehavioral functions and the brain. Neuropsychol Rev. 2007;17(3):239-257. doi:10.1007/s11065-007-9038-6

[4] Hendler RA, Ramchandani VA, Gilman J, Hommer DW. Stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2013;13:489-509. doi:10.1007/7854_2011_135

[5] Ebrahim IO, Shapiro CM, Williams AJ, Fenwick PB. Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013;37(4):539-549. doi:10.1111/acer.12006

[6] Suter, P & Schutz, Yves. (2009). The effect of exercise, alcohol or both combined on health and physical performance. International journal of obesity (2005). 32 Suppl 6. S48-52. 10.1038/ijo.2008.206.

[7] Steiner JL, Lang CH. Dysregulation of skeletal muscle protein metabolism by alcohol. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2015;308(9):E699-E712. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00006.2015

[8] Oscar-Berman M, Marinković K. Alcohol: effects on neurobehavioral functions and the brain. Neuropsychol Rev. 2007;17(3):239-257. doi:10.1007/s11065-007-9038-6 doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2003.12.003

 

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