What Alcohol Does to My Body

21 January 2014 · 37 comments

During the month of January, Kim and I are conducting two simultaneous experiments. First, we’re not eating carbohydrates. Second, we’re not drinking alcohol.

The “no alcohol” experiment is for me. Last January, at the request of my therapist, I went dry. I also cut out caffeine and any drinks that contained calories. Basically, the only thing I allowed myself to drink was water. At the end of the month, I felt — and looked — great. Slowly, however, I reintroduced caffeine and alcohol (and milk and juice) into my diet. By the end of 2013, I felt like I was drinking too much again, so I decided to do another dry month. Kim agreed to join me so that there’d be less temptation.

Meanwhile, Kim’s naturopath has been begging her to cut carbohydrates from her diet. She’s found that tough to do because I eat a lot of carbs.

Note: Although I tend toward a high-protein “paleo” diet, I find the modern trend toward demonization of carbohydrates, well, silly. I can understand how simple sugar might be bad (especially processed stuff, such as HFCS), but you’ll never convince me that it’s better for me to eat a steak than it is to eat a banana. Likewise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a piece of whole-grain bread or eating a potato for dinner.

Because Kim agreed to do no alcohol with me, I agreed to do no carbs with her, but with a caveat: My current fitness program calls for three “super shakes” a day, and those include fruit. I haven’t given those up.

For nearly three weeks, we held strong with no alcohol. We’ve done fairly well with the no carbs thing too. On occasion, one of us will have a piece of whole-grain toast with almond butter, but the only major deviation came last Saturday, when I ate a cookie with my lunch. (One interesting and unsurprising finding: On the days I have my super shakes, I don’t crave carbs. On the days I don’t have them, I do. And if I go two days without a super shake? I crave carbs intensely.)

Note: In retrospect, it was dumb to give up both alcohol and carbs in the same month. We should have spent a month without one, and then spent the next month without the other. Lesson learned.

Well, yesterday we biked into Portland to visit the science museum. After we finished, we stopped to have a late lunch at Olympic Provisions. By mutual agreement, we ordered mimosas to go with our meal. Later, at home, Kim opened a bottle of red wine to use in a beef stew. Because we’d already had mimosas (slippery slope!), we decided to drink the rest of the wine.

Obviously, we didn’t drink a lot of alcohol yesterday. We had three drinks each over a period of several hours. We went to bed at 9:30 so that Kim could get up for work at five in the morning.

Here’s where things get interesting.

  • Though we fell asleep quickly, neither one of us slept well. This is par for the course with alcohol. As a depressant, it does make sleep easier to come by. However, the quality of that sleep tends to be poor.
  • Both of us slept hot. I tend to sleep hot by nature, and that can be a challenge. We recently had to return a new mattress because I felt like I was burning up every night. Our new mattress has been fine. I can tell my body’s putting off heat, but the bed pulls it away from me. Well, last night I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I was definitely warm. I actually thought we’d left the thermostat set too high, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, as often happens, my body was trying to burn off the “poison” of the alcohol as I slept.
  • My mind is slow this morning. I’m not dumb, but I’m sluggish. It’s hard for me to concentrate, even after taking my ADHD meds.
  • At my morning weigh-in, I was a pound heavier than I ought to have been, and my gut was about a centimeter wider than expected. Plus, my face looked puffy. (This is another common side effect when I drink.)

After nineteen days of not drinking, three glasses of wine were enough to create noticeable after-effects the morning after.

Kim and I didn’t have time to talk much before she left for work, but I suspect I know what we’re going to decide. We both like wine (and I like whisky), so there’s little chance that we’ll ever give up alcohol entirely. But I can see both of us drastically cutting back our consumption. We might, for instance, drink only on Fridays and Saturdays or when we’re on vacation.

For me, there are two larger issues at stake.

First, and most importantly, I want to live a long and healthy life. Despite the occasional research that shows modest benefits to drinking a small amount of red wine every day, alcohol consumption in general has a strong negative correlation with longevity and quality of life. On a personal level, I’ve experienced three great weeks of physical fitness. My body feels and looks great, and I think a lot of that is because I haven’t been drinking.

Second, I know that my work suffers when I drink. I’m slow to get going in the morning, my mind works more slowly, and I have trouble focusing. This is true even if I’ve only had a couple of glasses of wine the night before, but it’s especially true if I’ve been hanging out with friends, and not monitoring my alcohol consumption.

This blog post isn’t meant to convince you to give up beer or wine or cocktails. Far from it. My goal is to put down in print the effects I’ve noticed in myself so that I can refer back to them in the future. I want this to be a motivational tool. I want to be the best person I can be — mentally and physically — and apparently reducing my alcohol intake is a great way to do that.

1 Jennifer January 21, 2014 at 04:40

Very interesting post, JD. I agree that giving up both at the same time might be a bit optimistic. It’s so easy to take one glass of wine and turn it into two, then three, so I often just tell myself I can’t have one. Limiting it to weekends or vacation is a good plan. The trouble with carbs, for me, is that they make me crave sweets. If I eat a sandwich or English muffin, just a bit later I want M&Ms or ice cream, etc. Kudos to you for jotting down this post for the public to see. Much braver than I could ever be.

2 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 06:57

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a great writer, but a life-long alcoholic. He died when he was 44, which is how old I am today. He famously said, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” I think about that all the time. It’s true. It’s the whole slippery slope thing.

I too crave sweets. But I find I crave fewer sweets if I’m not militant about my carb consumption, which is another reason I don’t sweat over it. If I’m trying to be really strict, I’m tempted by cookies and cake and donuts. I think about them a lot. But if I allow myself to have mashed potatoes with my dinner or a piece of toast with breakfast or rice with lunch or a bowl of chili now and then, I don’t become obsessed with the sweets. Sure, I still want them now and then, but the cravings are sharply reduced.

3 Kathryn January 21, 2014 at 05:11

if you don’t eat any carbs, what do you eat in a typical day?

4 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 07:02

Here’s a typical day for me this month.

BREAKFAST
Bacon or (when I have it) lean chicken sausage
Eggs (scrambled or hard-boiled)
MAYBE some sort of veggie

LUNCH
Whatever Kim prepared for the week…
This week, it’s beef stew with zucchini and carrots and other veggies (the cooked carrots are borderline acceptable)
Last week, it was a delicious chicken curry with tons of veggies

DINNER
Whatever I prepare, which generally follows a formula of “hunk of protein and pile of veggies”.
Last night, that was a pork loin and brussels sprouts.
Another night, it might be a salmon filet with kale salad and fried leeks

ALL DAY
My “super shake”, which contains one cup milk, one cup water, tablespoon of almond butter, three scoops of protein powder, one scoop of veggie powder, one banana, and two handfuls of frozen berries. This super shake is the only source of carbs. And yes, there’s plenty of sugar here. I know that. The only reason I’ve continued with this is that it’s part of my weight-lifting regimen.

5 Beth January 21, 2014 at 08:13

I was interested in more info about the “super shake” so thanks for including it here. I drink something similar each morning, but with only one scoop of protein powder and no veggie powder.

Now I’m intrigued by Kim’s chicken curry — any chance she’d share her recipe?

I crave sugar/sweets quite often, particularly after I eat lunch. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying a paleo or primal-based diet just to see if I feel better. I live in a house with carb/dairy/sweets lovers, though, and just haven’t made a commitment yet to working out a meal plan and sticking to it on my own. Reading about your own experience with fitness and nutrition has been really interesting, encouraging & helpful, though. Thanks for sharing it with us.

6 chacha1 January 21, 2014 at 11:46

I wondered about that too and – while I realize this is not a fitness/nutrition blog – it may be helpful to clarify: fruits AND VEGETABLES are technically “carbs.” When you say you are not eating any carbs, what you seem to really mean is that you are not eating *starches*.

Cutting bread, potatoes, rice, sugars, and the like from your diet is both possible and (for many people) healthy. However, cutting all “carbs” would entail eating nothing but animal products and that is clearly not what you are doing. :-)

In general you are very careful to not use convenient shorthands. In this case, the blanket term “carbs,” while Internet-friendly, is inaccurate. I don’t point this out with snarkiness intended, but to help other readers put the correct labels on what *they* may be choosing to eat.

7 Kathryn January 22, 2014 at 03:16

Are these the ingredients for just one shake, or the total amount you use for your 3 shakes during the day?

8 Eileen January 21, 2014 at 06:36

Thanks (as always) for your honesty, JD. I’ll be curious to learn (at some point) how you and Kim review your recent experience and move forward. It’ll be interesting to see how a rule/guideline based approach goes. I’m a non-drinker (though I was never much of an “at home” drinker anyway) and it’s interesting to watch how other people approach alcohol.

I’m glad to see you comment about the “1 glass of red wine” studies but acknowledge that overall, it introduces risk. I know plenty of people that drink, but none that only drink 1 glass of red wine a day!

9 Mike January 21, 2014 at 08:53

While you are right that some people don’t stop at one glass of wine, I am one of the many people I know that do stop at one glass per day. For me, it’s more of a social thing to have a glass of wine with dinner, and not for recreational purposes like some people. The “risk” you mention might be a concern for people that are predisposed to or have a history of abusing alcohol, but for many people there isn’t any risk in having a glass of wine.

10 chacha1 January 21, 2014 at 11:48

I consider a glass of wine to be an important component of a thoughtfully-prepared dinner. That said, given that any alcoholic beverage is, nutritionally speaking, almost pure sugar … the glass of wine is best poured modestly (4 oz or less) and not every night.

11 JoDi January 21, 2014 at 21:40

It’s a common misconception that all alcoholic drinks contain a lot of sugar. The sugar content varies widely depending on the type of alcoholic beverage. This site has a pretty good explanation:
http://www.livestrong.com/article/464744-sugar-content-in-alcoholic-beverages/

12 chacha1 January 24, 2014 at 10:19

But all carbohydrates, when unaccompanied by other nutrients, are metabolized *by most people* as sugar. There are no other nutrients in alcoholic beverages except those added as mixers, which often contain MORE sugar.

I’m not saying it’s the same as drinking a can of Coca-Cola, but it’s also not the same as drinking a glass of water.

13 Carla January 21, 2014 at 07:47

I stopped eating grains, starches, sugars and especially gluten years ago (gluten 2005) and I am so much better for it. Dealing with a chronic illnesses I’m thankful to be ahead of the curve when it comes to my diet. Yes, I do eat Paleo per my doctor’s recommendation but I never thought of it as an exclusive “high protein” Atkins type diet since I eat tons of non starchy veggies daily with a green smoothie mixed in for good measure.

In terms of alcohol, over the years I’ve limited it to weekends and special occasions and one glass of wine only. I will probably cut back more.

14 PawPrint January 21, 2014 at 08:35

As another dealing with a chronic illness, I noticed that during the holidays when I was lax about diet (eating sweets and grains), I had a major increase in pain. Sugar is like a drug for me, and once I get a taste, I can’t get enough–it’s almost scary–so sugar has been out since Dec. 26. Although I do drink red wine on weekends (1 glass), I noticed that it lowers my inhibitions with regard to my diet. So although I don’t eat grains or sugar, I overeat nuts, dairy, and fruits. This post is timely for me because I plan to give up the alcohol. It’s strange, however, that I know that I will feel better if I don’t eat sugar or drink alcohol, but I still want what is obviously toxic to my body and some days it becomes a mental battle to stay away from those toxins.

15 Carla January 22, 2014 at 00:04

Yes, I definitely went crazy during the holidays too. I had one glass too many and paid for it. Fortunately I didn’t go too crazy with food. Its amazing how much pressure there is to “not be so strict” and to do “all things in moderation” only to pay later. I really need to not be so lax at times.

16 Tom Murin January 21, 2014 at 07:54

J.D., I am anxiously awaiting more photos to see how the program is going. I am surprised by the bloat from only 3 glasses of wine. I get bloated with beer (I love hoppy microbrews). I have cut down on my drinking quite a bit, but now I have red wine or hard liquor to avoid the bloat.

17 Jen January 21, 2014 at 08:03

Interesting and timely post. I’m also avoiding carbs and alcohol stringently for health reasons. I’m not overweight but borderline diabetic trying to avoid medication. I’ve found any carbs (even whole grain) or alcohol shoots my blood sugar high and overall I feel much better on a high protein paleo style diet. I met a out of town friend last night and had a rare glass of wine – also slept terribly and hot. This morning I’m feeling sluggish and a bit grumpy. I won’t swear off alcohol permanently but plan to keep it as an infrequent treat.

18 @freepursue January 21, 2014 at 08:32

I needed to see this today. Red wine is my poison of choose and the cost (health and wallet) is starting to add up.

There is a marked hedonic adaptation associated with alcohol. Here’s how it starts:

1 glass = nice, for a while. Soon however, the good taste is still there, but it does not seem to have the “kick” it used to
2 glasses = nice again, for a while, but now it’s not good for you AND you spend twice as much
3 glasses = nice again, for a while…you see where this is going (never buy boxed wine if this is you – it’s easy to not notice how much you are going through!)

Well, I am pushing the reset button and getting back to 1 glass by only having wine on Fridays and Saturday, IF I want to have one. Otherwise, my favourite tea will be the go to relaxing drink. I have been 1/2 successful since the New Year, but this post has helped me refocus by laying out the known benefits.

Thank you. Cheers.

19 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 08:45

It seems like there are several others who are trying to reduce their alcohol consumption. I want to share a drink that Kim and I have found effective during January for fighting both sugar and alcohol at the same time. It’s something we can (and do) make at home, plus we can usually buy it (cheap!) in restaurants. It’s simple:

* Pour club soda over ice. Squeeze in a bit of lime juice. The end.

That’s it. That’s all the drink is. We find the fizzy lime-iness makes us feel like we’re having something fun and tasty to drink without feeling deprived. When it’s cold, we also find that hot tea can be a satisfactory substitute. We’re open to other suggestions, though! :)

20 Michael January 21, 2014 at 19:55

I drink club soda and lime all the time when I’m traveling. It’s my standby in airport lounges and aboard planes.

21 JoDi January 21, 2014 at 21:34

That’s my go-to drink when I’m craving diet soda. It gives me the fizz and some flavor without the artificial sweetener. I drink a lot of water, but I get tired of drinking the same thing all day long.

I rarely drink alcohol because my husband doesn’t drink at all because of his meds. (My husband’s therapist encouraged him to stop drinking for years before he finally did it.) I only have one or two if I’m away visiting my family or out to dinner with a friend. It makes me feel lousy the next day if I have more than one so I usually keep my indulgence to a single margarita. :)

22 Ramona January 25, 2014 at 04:12

Yes! I discovered club soda with lime a few months back. It tastes do fresh and seems almost decadent.

23 martin January 21, 2014 at 10:11

That’s funny because I’m also avoiding alcohol in January. I took three months off from September- December.

You really can’t deny the benefits of not-drinking. I love to drink, be the life of the party and get wild. However, I’ve realized how amazing it feels to not drink.

Your mind is always sharp, you don’t waste valuable time to a hangover, and you certainly don’t hurt your physique.

I hope you don’t mind, and if you do, please delete the link. I wrote over 2,000 words on alcohol recently:

http://kettlebellrebels.com/drinking-alcohol-rules/

24 Eileen January 21, 2014 at 11:12

martin, I really enjoyed your entry, it’s brutally honest! I’m a LOT older and basically don’t drink, but it’s a great resource.

As a young college student (the one you talk about at the top!), I used to always drink a big glass of ice water after every drink/beer. Part of that was because I was too broke to buy drink after drink, but it also allowed me to keep my bearings a bit better and I was still standing around “holding something”.

25 Tyler Karaszewski January 21, 2014 at 10:28

I recently cut down my alcohol consumption as well. My girlfriend and I were getting to the point that it was easy to go through a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer every night, and it was making us fatter and tired, so we agreed that we’d just stop buying alcohol unless we were out visiting someone or out to dinner or something. We haven’t had hardly any alcohol at home since then (about a month I guess) and I’m actually pretty happy with it. It saves money too, a bottle of wine every night is easily $300/month. I’m excited to be able to tell you that you can almost buy a racing boat for that much.

26 Carolyn January 21, 2014 at 12:14

JD, you might find this recent piece on the importance of good sleep in the NY Times Review.Title of the article “Good Night. Sleep Clean” Here’s the link:

http://nyti.ms/1c5pkqN

The article states that scientists are starting to determine why good/deep sleep is so important and how it helps fend off the buildup of proteins associated with aging and neural degeneration. This article isn’t about alcohol, but alcohol disrupts good/deep sleep which is increasingly recognized as being more important than people have thought. I too am trying to cut back (on alcohol, not sleep :). Good luck and look forward to hearing about your success on this front (it’s inspiring).

27 Snerk January 21, 2014 at 12:24

I drink only very occasionally. Since I don’t have a strong desire for alcohol, years ago I decided to always make a conscious decision before I take a drink (rather than just order one because everyone else at the table is having one). I find that it saves me money & calories. Also, when I do drink I feel a little off the next day. I don’t drink enough to be hung-over but just not quite right. I don’t believe in banning things from my diet. I just like to eat mindfully as much as possible.

28 Mark January 21, 2014 at 13:13

JD,

I wish you would have tried just one self-experiment exclusively (i.e., low-carb OR no drinking) so you could really see the cause/effect.

The super shakes are pretty much sugar bombs (as you noted).

Also, “paleo” is not a high protein diet. It can be, but not recommended nor typical. The original writings from Loren Cordain incorrectly called for lean meats as the best source of meat, but he’s since changed his stance and most agree that upping good fat intake (good = saturated and mono-unsaturated) is important. The paleo template must be customized to the individual. If someone is overweight/obese, they should have a macronutrient ratio of low carbs, moderate protein, and high good fats, in terms of percentage. Someone doing high intensity training or anaerobic training will likely need to up the carb percentage. Someone looking to gain weight will want to up the carb and protein % (protein, in excess, gets converted to sugar in the body and thus stored as fat). So you see it really varies from person to person.

Keep in mind that “paleo” is not a diet in terms of “eat this on day one, this on day two, etc.” but a template. And the template is very much non-specific. True paleo is pretty strict and limiting (no dairy, no legumes, in addition to no sugars or grains). Nowadays most people have come to the conclusion that dairy is fine (so long as it isn’t “low fat”, or sugar ladened).

As someone who has studied lots of diets over the past few years, and the science behind nutrition/fitness in depth, I have a love/hate view of Paleo (as I do of another topic you’ve touched on in the past – Crossfit). I’m not a fanboy or anti either – I do think I’m objective. And based on what you wrote, you’re not eating paleo.

I wish you the best in your journey!
mark

29 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 17:02

Agreed. I always say that I eat paleo-ish. What I really mean is I try to emphasize fat and “good fat” while avoiding simple sugars. But I’m not militant about it. And I don’t demonize starches. Beans and potatoes and rice and whole grains seem like good things to me based on my own reading and research.

Basically, I believe that the old adage “all things in moderation” is the best way to approach food and alcohol.

30 Jennifer Limbaugh January 21, 2014 at 14:39

Awesome post JD! Like we talked about the other day, alcohol does more to our bodies than just add calories.
I read recently that alcohol is shoved to the front of the line of useable fuel by the body. So if you work out and them have alcohol, you just wasted all your energy! Instead of using your own body fat to fuel your exercise, the alcohol is burned instead.
I really like the idea of choosing a day or two per week to allow for a “cheat”.

31 Lynn January 21, 2014 at 18:01

I’d be more concerned about mixing ADHD meds and alcohol. Usually the two don’t mix well. Please check with your Dr.

32 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 18:36

Thank you for pointing this out. I was unaware of the issue, but now some things make sense.

33 Josh January 21, 2014 at 18:52

In college I was diagnosed with ADD and began taking meds for it. Every time I would drink, sometimes even a single drink, I would sleep walk and wake up in the strangest places. I finally went to the Dr. and found out you aren’t supposed to drink with the meds. Being a dumb college kid, the drinking stayed and the meds went, even though they were helping me significantly.

So yeah, the side effects of mixing the two are very real!

34 Naomi January 22, 2014 at 08:48

I gave up alcohol a few years ago to lose weight, then brought it back slowly. The weight gain was immediate and noticeable. I had other similar problems as you – poor sleep, irregular heart beat, etc. Now I’m done with it. Last year I had wine at a wedding and with Christmas dinner. That’s it.

Last year was my year without sugar. It was incredibly difficult. It is in *everything*. I quickly realized that there is sugar in restaurant foods, even if it isn’t dessert, and I resigned myself to that. I tried to only order foods that were highly unlikely to have sugar (e.g., steak frites) but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sugar in the steak sauce reduction.

On January 1st I went to Salt & Straw for my first sugar in a year. Meh. It was anticlimactic. I’m done with sugar too. I have lost my cravings for it.

And my body does much better without it. I went on a long, difficult backpacking trip and didn’t pack enough food. But because I wasn’t eating sugar, I didn’t have the blood sugar spikes and bonks that I would normally get. I never felt that I had to eat RIGHT NOW. I was hungry, but had no lack of energy. I cannot express how profound this experience was for me.

One thing I have learned – none is easier than some. Once I said “absolutely no sugar”, the decision was made for me. I no longer had to justify the brownie at the bakery…”I worked out every day this week…I deserve it!”. Nope. None. Easy. My willpower is conserved for other things.

35 Ben January 22, 2014 at 10:35

JD – just wanted to say thanks very much for this informative post. I’ve been a fan since your GRS days, and reading your articles compared with all the other personal finance bloggers makes it easy to see the difference between truly successful writers/bloggers and those who are just churning out content. Kudos to you for putting yourself out there and providing such a great service.

You have also inspired me to try a “no-alcohol” month myself. Well, maybe I’ll start with just 2 weeks, I do enjoy bourbon cocktails in the winter…

36 Trisha January 24, 2014 at 08:24

Very interesting post JD. I have also cut back on drinking, and limiting it to special occasions or vacation.

I would be interested to know what mattress did you buy that helps with overheating. My husband and I are trying to find a mattress that will help those of us who “run hot” at night. We’ve tried different ones over the years, but really haven’t found one that really helps the heat issue.

37 Brooklyn Money February 10, 2014 at 09:58

I gave up booze for Lent40 days) y 2 years ago and I plan to do it again this year (except I might have a short trip in the middle there so will make an exception for that).

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