Is Alcohol Toxic? (How to Choose Safe Options & Amounts)

Is alcohol toxic? or healthy?

Let’s talk about alcohol for a minute… On the one hand, blue zone studies show that most healthy populations consume moderate amounts of alcohol (usually wine). Yet, other researchers (and my mother-in-law) call alcohol toxic and say it should be avoided at all costs.

So who is right?

Turns out… they are both partially correct. To understand why, we have to understand some basic definitions so we can delve into the research. Hang with me… I’ll explain at the end why I personally choose to drink low-alcohol wines in moderation and consider this healthy.

What is Alcohol?

When we talk about alcohol, most often, we are referring to the broad category of drinkable liquids like wine, beer and liquor. Ethanol is the active ingredient in these liquids and is the actual “alcohol” we are referring to. Ethanol is responsible for the symptoms of intoxication and the potentially harmful effects on the body.

Is Alcohol Toxic?

To answer this question, we must understand what a toxin actually is. The terms “toxin” and “poison” are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. The term “toxin” is not a clinical definition. When it comes to toxicity, the dose makes the poison.

As an example, some things are immediately and obviously poisonous or venomous. Think spider bite, snake bite, or cyanide. Yet, almost any natural substance can be both toxic or safe… depending on the dose.

Don’t believe me? One atom of plutonium (a highly dangerous substance) is not fatal. Yet three gallons of water (a vital substance for life) consumed in a short amount of time can be fatal.

This is why toxicity is defined by the level of the substance found in the body, not by the substance itself.

So according to the scientific definition, alcohol is not in fact “toxic” by itself, but it *can* be in large doses. Research shows that moderate amounts of alcohol, especially wine, can also be very healthy.

Is Alcohol a Drug?

This definition is a little easier. In short… yes.

Alcohol is a drug. But, so is sugar, according to quite a few researchers including Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Robert Lustig. They claim that sugar can be eight times as addictive as cocaine and cite studies where lab rats chose sugar water over cocaine.

The dictionary definition of drug is “a substance used as a medication or in preparation of a medication.” By this definition, both alcohol and sugar would be drugs based on the rate at which we self medicate.

Scientifically, a drug is “a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.” By that definition, again, both sugar and alcohol are a drug.

Bottom line– If you’re avoiding alcohol but not sugar, you’re not fixing anything. Before you call alcohol toxic, understand the toxicity of other everyday substances like sugar.

Our Body Produces Alcohol Daily

Many people don’t realize that our bodies produce ethanol in small amounts daily. Through the normal process of digestion of carbohydrates, the body produces a few grams of ethanol a day. Our bodies easily metabolize and remove this amount and we are perfectly fine.

In some rare cases, the body over-produces alcohol in what is known as gut fermentation syndrome or “auto-brewery syndrome.” This occurs when an overgrowth of brewers yeast in the body creates high amounts of alcohol after carbohydrate consumption. Sufferers of this syndrome have even been charged with a DUI (driving under the influence) without drinking because of their high levels of blood alcohol content!

How Alcohol Affects The Body

Based on the information above, we know that alcohol has a physiological effect on the body. All of the research on the positive benefits focus on moderate amounts of alcohol. Moderate consumption is defined as 1-2 drinks a day or less. In general, research shows that excessive alcohol consumption is harmful to the body and does not have any benefit.

At high amounts, we should all consider alcohol toxic and avoid it. In moderate amounts, the research shows that alcohol can be beneficial.

How Alcohol Affects The Liver

The liver is directly affected by alcohol consumption. When we drink, the liver creates an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase to convert the ethanol to acetaldehyde (a really toxic compound). Acetaldehyde is responsible for many of the symptoms of a hangover. An enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase converts the acetaldehyde into acetic acid (aka- vinegar), rendering it harmless.

In short, when we consume more alcohol than our liver can handle in a short amount of time, acetaldehyde can build up. We feel intoxicated and the next day we can feel pretty bad. Over time, if acetaldehyde lingers in the liver too long or too often, it can cause inflammation. At the extreme end, this can cause cirrhosis and advanced liver problems.

Liver alcohol metabolism also increases the NADH/NAD+ ratio, thereby promoting the creation of liver fat cells. This also creates a reduction in fatty acid oxidation leading to added fat in the liver and impaired fat burning. This is known as “fatty liver disease.”

Side note: Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease can be caused by consumption of sugar and harmful fats, even in the absence of alcohol. Again, if you’re avoiding alcohol but still consuming sugar… you aren’t fixing the problem.

Bottom Line: Regular consumption of excess alcohol harms the liver. Moderate consumption of alcohol and avoidance or limiting of sugar can be helpful to the liver.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Excessive alcohol consumption affects the brain in several ways. In the short term, people can experience the short lived effects of drunkenness and even blackouts or amnesia. Over the long-term, excessive drinking can lead to impaired brain function and even dementia.

On the other hand, research indicates that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with better brain function and less risk of dementia, especially in elderly populations.

Bottom line again: The dose makes the poison. If you drink, always drink in moderation.

How Alcohol Affects the Heart

Alcohol has a complicated relationship with heart health. This is one area where researchers don’t immediately consider alcohol toxic. In short, moderate drinking is associated with better heart health. Excessive drinking is associated with decreased heart health.

Again – moderation wins!

Moderate alcohol consumption benefits the heart in several ways. Alcohol improves the cholesterol ratio, reduces stress and anxiety, and reduces fibrinogen in the blood.

Is Alcohol Toxic for Sleep?

Sleep is vital for health and alcohol consumption can reduce sleep quality. Drinking too much interferes with the sleep cycles and can lead to sleep disruptions. I find that if I drink more than a couple glasses of wine, I wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep. With all the research on sleep, this may just be one of the most dangerous affects of drinking too much!

Bottom Line: Don’t drink enough to interfere with your sleep quality!

Alcohol for Endothelial Function

This is one area where moderate alcohol consumption really shines. Never heard of endothelial function? Mark Sisson explains:

Impaired release of nitric oxide from endothelial cells is associated with cardiovascular disease. Ethanol improves the production of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels, regulates blood pressure, induces vascular smooth muscle relaxation, and basically improves endothelial function. If you want good cardiovascular health, you want good endothelial function. However, it’s important to note that large doses of ethanol seem to decrease endothelial function, so caution is obviously warranted.

Once again, moderation for the win!

Historical and Social Aspects of Drinking

When discussing the long-term health of wine, we can’t leave out the historical and social aspects. Most cultures throughout history consumed alcohol, especially wine. They did in Biblical times. Many people in Blue Zones (places where people live past 100 in higher than normal rates) drink a glass of wine a day.

In modern times, alcohol is considered a social lubricant. We share a glass of wine over a nice dinner, or on a special occasion or while having a great conversation with a loved one. Alcohol consumption can reduce stress and encourage social interaction. Since stress is correlated with health problems and we know the importance of social interaction for longevity… these benefits can’t be ignored.

One important caveat though… There are a few factors that go along with moderate wine consumption in blue zones and healthy regions. These populations typically are not sedentary and move on a daily basis. Alcohol consumption goes hand in hand with a nutrient dense diet and they typically have strong community and social relationships. If you’re looking for the biggest health benefits, make sure you optimize those factors too!

Bottom Line… Alcohol Toxic: Yes or No?

At the end of the day, this answer varies by person based on a variety of factors. In large amounts, research shows that we should all consider alcohol toxic. On the other hand, science shows many benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, especially from wine.

Liquor, for instance, has a much higher ethanol content than beer or wine, especially low-alcohol wines. For this reason, we can drink much less of it before it starts reaching the toxic level. Analysis of available data shows that moderate alcohol use reduces the risk of death and correlates with longevity. Excessive consumption is linked to higher rates of death.

Those who can consume alcohol, especially wine, moderately without a problem may benefit. Those who are prone to addiction may have trouble sticking to moderation and should consider avoiding alcohol.

If you’re going to drink, I’d encourage you to stick to moderation and consume low-alcohol options.

Alcohol Consumption: What I Do

The research is pretty clear on a few things:

  • Moderate alcohol consumption provides the most benefit.
  • Wine is the most beneficial and well-studied alcohol to consume.
  • Since alcohol is toxic at high doses, more is not better.

For these reasons, I typically stick to just wine, and specifically low-alcohol wines. Low-alcohol wines also have more fluid and less alcohol per ounce so they are less dehydrating and provide more benefit.

I also try to drink with food and not on an empty stomach. When the stomach is empty, something called the pyloric sphincter is open and more alcohol hits the small intestine and is absorbed immediately. Drinking with food can also reduce post-eating blood glucose and let the body get the most benefit.

Today, I only drink wines from Dry Farm Wines. Their wines taste better and are clean, additive free, organically farmed, fermented with wild native yeasts, and 100% natural. All are produced by small family farms in Europe.

Another important reason I choose Dry Farm Wines is the lower alcohol content. They are the only wine merchant in the world who does independent lab testing on every wine they sell and places a cap on alcohol. All the wines they sell are between 9% and 12.5% alcohol. Standard wines are most commonly 14%-17%+ alcohol and spirits are 40%-50% alcohol.

If you want to try them and get an extra bottle for a penny, check them out here.

Your turn. Are you a wine drinker or prefer something harder? Were you aware of this research? Share below!

Sources & More Reading:

1.Purohit, V., Gao, B., & Song, B.-J. (2009). Molecular Mechanisms of Alcoholic Fatty Liver. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 33(2), 191–205. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2008.00827.x/abstract;jsessionid=2975F122E0C0E3A0AEE24F4937283983.f03t04
2. Augusto Di Castelnuovo, Simona Costanzo, Vincenzo Bagnardi, Maria Benedetta Donati, Licia Iacoviello, Giovanni de Gaetano. Alcohol Dosing and Total Mortality in Men and WomenAn Updated Meta-analysis of 34 Prospective Studies. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(22):2437–2445. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.22.2437
3. Agarwal DP. Cardioprotective effects of light-moderate consumption of alcohol: a review of putative mechanisms. Alcohol Alcohol. 2002;37(5):409-15.
4. Bertelli AA, Das DK. Grapes, wines, resveratrol, and heart health. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2009;54(6):468-76.
5. Di castelnuovo A, Rotondo S, Iacoviello L, Donati MB, De gaetano G. Meta-analysis of wine and beer consumption in relation to vascular risk. Circulation. 2002;105(24):2836-44.

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