“Healthy alcohol” might sound like an oxymoron, and we get it — alcohol isn’t exactly the best thing for our bodies. Recent research has shown the negative effects of alcohol, including causing acid reflux, and if a pregnant woman has even a tiny amount, it can impact a fetus with long term consequences. But we also know that it’s a central element of many social get-togethers, and has been part of the human experience since…well, forever. We already investigated the healthiest wine options, but now we’ve decided to dig into healthy alcohol as a whole. How does alcohol affect the body? Is there a big difference between beer, wine, and spirits in terms of health impact? Do the negative effects of alcohol always outweigh any benefits, or is there a healthier way to drink?
Watch our video guide above or keep reading to learn the keys to biohack your drinking (yep, we just said that).
How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
Before we get into the negative effects of alcohol, let’s take a step back to explain what, exactly, happens to your body when you drink alcohol. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:
You take a sip of alcohol. That sip immediately moves into the small blood vessels on your mouth and tongue.
The alcohol then moves down your esophagus and passes into your stomach. If there is food in your stomach, the alcohol remains there for some time, and a portion of it is broken down by an enzyme before passing into the bloodstream.
The remaining alcohol (around 75% — more if your stomach was empty) then passes into your small intestine, from where it is absorbed into your bloodstream.
Once the alcohol is in your blood, it circulates throughout your entire body, reaching your brain within five minutes. Within 10 minutes, you’ll notice the effects of alcohol, such as lowered inhibitions, trouble concentrating, relaxation, slowed thinking, and flushed skin.
After about 20 minutes, your liver will begin to break down the alcohol. The liver is responsible for filtering 80-90% of the alcohol you consume, and it can break down alcohol at a rate of about one drink per hour. This rate can vary depending on your size, age, sex, and liver health.
The alcohol not filtered by the liver goes into the kidneys, which are responsible for balancing the amount of fluid in the body, and removing waste through urine (which explains why drinking can make you need to pee more!)
Two enzymes help metabolize alcohol: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). In a two-step process, they convert the alcohol into water and carbon dioxide, which makes it easier to eliminate.
So now that you know the biology and physiology of how alcohol affects your body, what about those negative effects of alcohol we referenced earlier? Let’s get into them.
The Negative Effects of Alcohol on the Body
While for most of us, it’s perfectly fine to have an evening glass of wine or occasional cocktail, problems begin to arise when we drink too much, either on one individual occasion or as a habit over time. When you drink too much, that’s when the negative effects of alcohol really show up, both in the long-term and the short-term. Those issues include:
Heart issues, such as irregular heartbeat and stretching or drooping of the heart muscle
Increased risk of stroke
High blood pressure
Liver issues, such as cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver and loss of liver cells)
Increased risk of pancreatitis (a dangerous swelling of the pancreas that prevents proper digestion)
Increased risk of various cancers, including liver cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and throat cancer
Too much or too little sugar in the blood (because alcohol damages the pancreas, which regulates the body’s insulin use and response to glucose)
Changes and damage to brain structure that lead to difficulty forming long- and short-term memories
These negative effects of alcohol are very serious, so it’s important to practice moderation when it comes to how much and how often you drink, and to cut out alcohol entirely if it’s an issue for you.
But for those of us who do choose to drink and can do so without harming our health, that still leaves the question of what to drink! Let’s get into it.
Choosing a Healthy Alcohol: A Drink-By-Drink Breakdown
Regardless of the negative effects of alcohol outlined above, the truth is that many of us will still continue to imbibe from time to time. So when we do, what should we drink?
When you’re deciding what to order at a bar or pick up at the liquor store, you’re probably considering a lot of factors: taste, price, calories, and circumstance in which you’ll be drinking. Here’s another one to consider: can you find a healthy alcohol? Here’s a rundown on how different types of booze stack up, health-wise.
Wine drinkers live longer than people who drink other forms of alcohol. Red wine in particular has been associated with a ton of health benefits, including lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer. These health benefits likely derive from red wine’s high content of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant. Vive la vin!
But before you pop the cork on another bottle, know that wine also has some health drawbacks. First, as WellBe expert Dr. Jonathan Aviv explains, it is highly acidic (white slightly more acidic than red), and can cause your sinuses to swell and trigger an allergic response. Second, be aware that many wines contain added sugars that can cause inflammation. You can mitigate this by choosing dry wines, which have less sugar.
Sorry, whiskey lovers: when it comes to straight booze, brown liquors can have more negative health effects than clear ones. Whiskey, bourbon, rye, rum, and other dark spirits have been known to cause some pretty killer hangovers, potentially due to tannins, additives, or compounds that leach from wooden casks during aging.
But that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear if you go with clear liquor (see what we did there?). They may be a better choice overall, but not all clear spirits are created equal.
One of our favorite spirits is mezcal, an ultra-pure tequila, required by law to be 100% agave. When you opt for single ingredient liquor (just like one-ingredient foods) there is less chance of chemicals and other harmful additives. Mezcal is also made through fermentation, which means it can promote healthy digestion because it introduces more good bacteria into your gut.
While mezcal is legally required to be 100% agave, up to 49% of a bottle of tequila can contain fillers like corn, grain, sulfates, and artificial colors and flavors. If you’re a tequila lover, just look for “100% Agave” on the label and you should be good. Better yet, look for the organic label! Tequila that is 100% agave also has some health benefits, including improved digestion (because of that fermentation) and lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Vodka may increase blood flow to the heart and HDL (good) cholesterol. But be forewarned: most vodka is grain-based and so contains gluten, which is problematic for those with Celiac disease, but can cause inflammation even for those with undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. When we drink vodka, we’re choosing brands like Crop Organic, which is both USDA organic and certified gluten-free. If you can’t find an organic vodka, Tito’s is also gluten-free.
While beer can contain potassium and B vitamins and increase good cholesterol, these benefits are pretty insignificant when compared to beer’s high carb and calorie content. Plus if you’re sensitive to gluten, the malted barley in beer can make your immune system attack the lining of your small intestine.
So what’s the verdict when it comes to healthy alcohol? A good rule of thumb is the more pure something is, the healthier it is for you. That means that single-ingredient alcohols, like 100% agave tequila or wine made just from grapes (no sugars or sulfites or anything else added) are generally better for you than alcohol that comes from several or many ingredients.
The Healthiest Approach to Mixers and Cocktails
So we’ve covered the booze part, but what about the things you add to that booze? If you’re drinking a healthy alcohol like mezcal, does that mean it’s okay to add a sugary margarita mix? As I’m sure you could guess, the answer is no. After all, what you mix with your drink is going in your body too, so it matters just as much.
In general, try to drink your liquor straight, on ice, or mixed with filtered water or seltzer. Cocktails often contain syrups, juices, and other high-calorie, high-sugar, low-nutrient mixers (the average vodka cranberry has 7 ½ teaspoons of sugar!).
All this added sugar is especially bad in cocktail form, because the sugar makes extra work for your liver, which is already hard at work breaking down the alcohol. Plus, these sweet drinks mask the sharp flavor of alcohol and so they’re very easy to drink — meaning you’ll probably throw back more than you mean to, and more than you would if you were sipping something simpler.
And those “sugar-free” or “low-cal” flavored seltzers likely contain “natural flavors,” a category that includes an estimated 3,000 chemical food additives. The FDA does not require drink manufacturers to disclose what they are so we try to steer clear of anything that has “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients.
The Straight-Up Truth About Choosing Healthy Alcohol
While alcohol can have its health risks, drinking is an integral part of life for many of us. So to make your alcohol consumption as good for you as possible, remember these key points:
Alcohol passes through your stomach and intestines into your bloodstream, and is then metabolized by your liver (80-90%) and kidneys (10-20%) at the rate of one standard drink per hour.
If you drink heavily, the negative effects of alcohol can be very serious, including increased risk of cancer, stroke, and heart disease, as well as impaired brain function and memory and disrupted sugar levels in your blood.
Wine, in particular red wine, has been associated with health benefits including increased longevity and lower cholesterol. However, wine is also extremely acidic, which can cause your sinuses to swell, and many wines contain added sugar.
In general, brown liquors contain more harmful compounds (tannins, additives, and other substances that leach from barrels during fermentation) than clear liquors.
When drinking clear liquor, mezcal or 100% agave tequila are some of the healthiest choices. If you drink vodka, seek out a gluten-free brand.
While beer has some vitamins and minerals, it also has a very high calorie content and contains a lot of gluten, which can be difficult to digest.
No matter what alcohol you choose, always buy organic if you can.
Choose one-ingredient items (ie, just grapes in wine, just agave in tequila, etc). This prevents you from drinking additives like pesticides, fertilizers, or dyes.
Skip cocktails and go for your liquor straight, over ice, or with water or seltzer.
Follow these guidelines to enjoy a core component of human tradition, without wreaking havoc on your body (in the short- or long-term!). Cheers!
What’s your favorite healthy alcohol to drink? Tell us in the comments below!