After years of contradictory research on the health impacts of alcohol, researchers have come firmly down in the ‘any amount of booze ain’t exactly good for you’ camp. One reason why: cracking a few cold beers or mixing Manhattans puts undue stress on your body’s detoxification systems and could leave you more vulnerable to chronic diseases linked to inflammation like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
That said, it’s not a given that one glass of red wine will send you to an early grave.
“Variables such as family history and lifestyle choices make it difficult for researchers to directly link alcohol to specific diseases, except for conditions that have a strong causal link to alcohol use such as alcoholic fatty liver disease,” says Anastasia Jandes, M.D. PharmD, IFMCP.
Still, it’s a buzz kill.
The good news—and there is some—is that the effects appear to be both dose-dependent and reversible. Meaning? An occasional low-ABV lager probably won’t mess with your vital signs, and you can always put that second or third beer down if you’re concerned.
If hitting up fewer happy hours—or switching to non-alcoholic alts—isn’t for you, here’s what you need to know about alcohol and inflammation before you take your next sip.
What is Inflammation?
While “inflammation” might call to mind a sprained ankle or busted lip, it also refers to the body’s internal defense system.
Inflammation can have protective qualities. “Your immune system produces inflammatory cytokines when it detects foreign substances that have entered the body like bacteria, viruses, toxic substances, and certain foods; or when there is trauma,” says Jandes.
Cytokines are special proteins that signal the immune system to fight or repair in a process called the acute inflammatory response. In this situation you can think of them as soldiers that help ward off the bad guys.
Generally speaking, this is a good thing; it’s a sign your body’s firing on all four cylinders. The problem comes when your body’s immune system never really gets a break due to habits like drinking beer by the case, overeating, or letting stress get the best of you. When that happens, your system can shift into overdrive, with inflammatory responders ever present. This is chronic inflammation.
“This state of chronic inflammation is an underlying factor in many chronic disease states,” says Jandes. “If you’re overweight, have a leaky gut, or pop non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like candy, you may be especially prone to chronic inflammation,” Jandes adds. Consider yourself warned.
How Does Alcohol Contribute to Inflammation?
Once booze enters your system, it can also trigger two inflammatory processes, according to Jandes:
- It increases gut permeability
Alcohol changes the behavior of proteins responsible for letting substances exit your intestinal walls, Jandes explains. As a result, incompletely digested, potentially inflammatory food particles and toxins can enter the bloodstream.
- It messes with your gut microbiome
Within your intestines, alcohol breaks down the walls of harmful bacteria like E.coli, Salmonella, and H. pylori, causing their contents to spill out into your gut. Should these substances enter the bloodstream—a real risk considering increased gut permeability—they can trigger an inflammatory response, Jandes explains.
The extent of the damage caused by alcohol depends on many different factors, one of them being your baseline inflammatory status, she continues.
“Your body’s response to alcohol can also be influenced by factors such as the health of your gut and liver, your hydration status, the quality of your sleep over the past week, the type of alcohol and the amount,” Jandes says.
Effects of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation triggered by excess alcohol (among other things) can contribute to the following conditions:
Research supports the pivotal role that inflammation plays in the development and progression of cardiac and vascular diseases (1). In fact, elevated levels of inflammatory proteins are associated with both heart failure and adverse outcomes among those who experience acute coronary syndromes, an umbrella term for any number of conditions where blood flow to the heart is suddenly compromised.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease
Your liver breaks down most of the alcohol so it can be removed from your body. This process can generate harmful substances that may promote inflammation, damage the organ and can contribute to alcoholic fatty liver disease.
A precursor to more serious liver conditions such as alcohol hepatitis and cirrhosis, fatty liver disease is marked by excess fat stored in the liver. Once your liver is in trouble, your options are to eliminate alcohol completely or risk liver failure.
Weakened immune system
Chronic inflammation can contribute to low white blood cell count–white blood cells are part of the body’s immune system that fight conditions like inflammation and infection. A low count may result in a variety of inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular and bowel disease, plus diabetes, arthritis, and cancer, according to a review published in Oncotarget (2).
Mental health conditions
A review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience discusses an association between markers of inflammation and pessimism, as well as the interplay between these, stress and depression (3).
Perhaps, even more troubling: chronic inflammation has been linked to dementia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, and OCD, says Jandes.
How to Reduce Inflammation?
Managing inflammation caused by alcohol is no pipe dream; in many cases, it’s well within your power to keep things under control. Follow the tips below to have your drink and be well, too:
Drink in moderation
Moderate alcohol consumption (up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men) is associated with reduced inflammation thanks to alcohol’s ability to reduce certain inflammatory mediators. But don’t use that as an excuse to drink—no doctor in their right mind would prescribe alcohol to reduce inflammation.
“Generally, it is not recommended to begin to drink for anti-inflammatory benefits if you do not already drink,”Jandes says.
Squeeze lemon in your water.
Lemon juice contains a high dose of vitamins and plant compounds, particularly flavonoids, notes Jandes.
So lemon water doesn’t just taste fancy and delicious—it also may help protect against alcohol-induced liver injury, at least according to one study conducted on animals (4).
Eat anti-inflammatory foods.
Certain foods can help the body eliminate toxins and their toxic byproducts—and we’re not talking about late night pizza and wings.
“The main anti-inflammatory foods are high in phytonutrients and fiber, think colorful fruits and vegetables,” says Jandes, who recommends eating 10 servings of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors every day. And while you’re at it, season them with spices like turmeric, ginger, rosemary, and caraway that may have anti-inflammatory properties.
Eating causes an inflammatory response, while fasting reduces circulating levels of inflammatory mediators, notes Jandes. While we can’t quite knock that habit of eating—and honestly, who would want to?—intermittent fasting can help decrease the body’s overall inflammatory burden, she says.
The easiest way to fast without feeling miserable is to spend the bulk of your fast sleeping: Simply stop eating two to four hours before bed and delay breakfast for two to four hours after waking, Jandes suggests.
Set your sights on 8 hours of sleep.
Yes, we’re talking about every night: “Sleep is the body’s method of decreasing inflammation in the brain and the body,” Jandes explains. “Sleeping less than 6 hours significantly impacts most bodily functions and has been linked to higher rates of inflammatory disorders.”
Eat before you drink
“Eating prior to drinking can help slow the rate of gastric emptying—how fast substances move from your stomach to your small intestine,” says Jandes. “This decreases the absorption rate of alcohol in your bloodstream and thereby decreases the amount of alcohol available to cause inflammation.”
A good thing considering the absorption rate of alcohol in the stomach can be around 30% while absorption in the small intestine is greater than 90%.
Take Nrf2 activators
Some research suggests supplements categorized as Nrf2 activators—look for resveratrol, sulforaphane/glucoraphanin, NAC, curcumin, milk thistle, and/or green tea extract on the label, says Jandes—can regulate the body’s inflammatory response to reduce damage caused by inflammation. (5).
Jandes adds, “It is best to get these micronutrients in their native form, when you can, such as getting glucoraphanin from eating broccoli vs taking it as a supplement.”
Stress activates the same acute inflammatory response as pathogens and trauma, says Jandes.
Accumulating evidence suggests that stress can activate an inflammatory response in the brain that may contribute to the risk of mental illness, depression and other stress-related diseases (6, 7).
Meditating and practicing mindfulness can all help your body get really good at escaping its innate fight or flight mode.
Which Alcohol Is the Least Inflammatory?
If you’re generally healthy, a small amount of alcohol every day probably won’t lead to inflammation, reassures Jandes.
“Dry red wine seems to have the least amount of negative health effects due to its higher polyphenol content and beneficial bacteria,” she says.
If red wine’s not your style, beer has a lower alcohol content than alternatives—a good thing since higher alcohol content causes more inflammation in the gut.
Pass on hard liquor if inflammation is a concern for you, or avoid varieties aged in wooden barrels, which can contribute to inflammation, Jandes warns.
The Bottom Line
The extent to which your daily drink contributes to inflammation and associated disease risk may come down to what you’ve eaten, how much you’ve slept, how hydrated you are, the state of your gut, and of course, how much (and how often) you drink. But the tips above can help you stem the damage when you can’t resist a buzz.