Alcohol awareness week this year is all about ‘change’, but whether you’re a regular drinker or only indulge on special occasions it can be tricky to beat the habit.
For many of us, alcohol tends to go hand in hand with a ‘good time’, this is due to the powerful effect of alcohol on certain neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). Dopamine, which is linked to reward and motivation is tripled by alcohol giving us a burst of pleasure, however the effects are short lived, and we quickly develop a tolerance, so need more to get the same ‘hit’. This can result in feelings of anxiety and even cravings. In addition, our ‘happy chemical’ serotonin is also increased short term, but over time too much alcohol can reduce levels and lead to feelings of depression.
Another reason we tend to reach for the vino is stress but drinking alcohol can encourage production of the stress hormone cortisol, which long term can negatively affect hormone balance, digestion, reproduction, bone formation and wound repair. Cortisol also has a disruptive effect on insulin and our ability to manage blood sugar, which in addition to the calories in alcohol may also contribute to weight gain.
So, while enjoying a few tipples with friends can be fun, it’s understandable why many of us want to change our relationship with alcohol. However, this is definitely easier said than done and can be a complex issue, taking into account emotional and behavioural factors. However, if you are trying to curb your drinking there are a few things you can do from a nutritional perspective.
- Eat regularly – alcohol contains sugar and when consumed in excess can disrupt our ability to maintain balanced blood glucose by affecting our liver’s processing abilities. This often leads to ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ which not only promotes the production of cortisol but can encourage us to make poor food choices by feeling the need for a ‘quick fix’ of energy. Support your blood sugar by eating regular meals no more than 5 hours apart and when snacking, add protein to slow digestion, try carrots with houmous or oatcakes and nut butter.
- Choose complex carbohydrates – high fibre, whole grain carbohydrates release energy slowly, choose pulses, root vegetables and whole fruit (rather than juice) and opt for whole grain rice, bread and pasta. Steer clear of food made with refined white flour or containing added sugars which is quickly broken down, disrupting blood glucose balance.
- Eat protein at each meal – there’s no need to go overboard with protein – too much can actually put a strain on the liver and kidneys, and when processing alcohol it’s important they’re given as little work to do as possible! Aim for around 15-20g protein per meal e.g. half a tin of tuna, 1 chicken breast, half a can of kidney beans to help sustain appetite and balance hormones.
- Increase fruit and vegetables – aim to fill half of your plate with veggies at every meal and snack on fruit but balance the natural sugars with a source of protein and healthy fats, e.g. an apple and a handful of nuts.
- Eat your greens – cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale help the liver to detoxify excess toxins, stress hormones and sex hormones like oestrogen.
- Find an alcohol-free drink you enjoy – reducing alcohol is hard when options are limited, thankfully pubs and restaurants are realising the need to offer alternatives, many now stock alcohol-free beer and even gin(!) At home, stock up on healthy alternatives you actually enjoy so you don’t feel that you’re missing out, Get More Vitamins are available in multipacks or in larger 1 litre bottles and of course you’re getting extra benefits with all the vitamin goodness.
- Keep an eye on caffeine – reaching for coffee to cope with a hangover may feel necessary but stick to no more than 3-4 cups per day as caffeine promotes the release of stress hormones and can disrupt blood sugar management. Try herbal or fruit tea or choose green tea, which is lower in caffeine, packed with antioxidants and after a meal has been found to help maintain blood glucose.
- Feed your gut – alcohol can play havoc with digestive health, and it’s not just tummy trouble like constipation and diarrhoea. Approximately 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut so a compromised digestive system can have a knock-on effect on your mood. Keep things ticking along with prebiotic foods such as leeks, garlic and onions and probiotics including live yogurt, kefir, or fermented vegetables like sauerkraut.