From a cold beer after a bike race to a Bloody Mary at brunch, alcohol in moderation is, for many people, a pleasure. But even a little bit can cause dehydration and damage cells, making you look and feel older than you are.
Though we know cocktails aren’t necessarily the healthiest way to celebrate, relax, or cap off dinner, that doesn’t stop most of us from imbibing from time to time. Whether you throw back a shot of tequila or sip an old fashioned, you’re drinking ethanol, “which is formed from the fermentation of sugar with yeast,” says registered dietician Leslie Bonci, founder of Active Eating Advice.
For most people, drinking in moderation is fine, but it’s good to know what alcohol can do to your body.
Effects of Alcohol
The liver filters alcohol, same as with most ingested substances. “When you drink, the liquid gets pushed over to the liver,” says registered dietician Torey Armul, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Everyone’s liver is different though. “Men are typically more efficient at processing alcohol than women,” Armul says. “And as you age, you become less effective at processing alcohol.” Part of the reason: An older body tends to have less water than a younger body. Therefore, alcohol has the opportunity to take up more blood volume, because there’s less water to dilute it.
Drinking alcohol in excess can damage the liver. But it affects other organs too. Alcohol can cause pancreatitis, Bonci says. And studies have shown that alcohol can increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, breast, and more. Lesser but still serious damages are a suppressed immune system (so stay away when sick), high blood pressure, and irritation of the digestive tract. Heavy drinking can cause the capillaries in the face to burst, giving skin a red, blotchy look.
“Just a couple of beers or glasses of wine can disrupt your sleep, making you feel and look tired for days.”
But even a few drinks can have negative effects. Just a couple of beers or glasses of wine can disrupt your sleep, making you feel and look tired for days, Bonci says. Even a small amount of alcohol can dehydrate the body, making skin appear dry and dull and more prone to tiny lines and wrinkles. (A tip: Follow each drink with a glass of water. You can thank us in the morning.) And, of course, alcohol is empty calories, which means it either displaces the nutritious food you would otherwise eat or adds to your daily caloric intake.
Guidelines for Drinking
We’d be hypocrites if we told you to never drink again. Drinking is very much an accepted part of life. And lately it’s become even more tied to the celebration of certain fitness achievements, like finishing a race or beating a personal best. We’re not telling you to stop. Instead, just drink responsibly and know that there’s a toll.
“Good guidelines are one drink for women and two for men a day,” Bonci says. One drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Keep an eye on the calories, too — mixed drinks have lots of sugar that can quickly turn a cocktail into a calorie bomb.
And Bonci recommends eating before you drink and taking it slow: “Sit, sip, and savor — don’t chug!”