As a nutritionist specializing in a paleo/primal approach, I get LOTS of questions about alcohol! And understandably so. It’s part of our culture, our social environment, and it’s a way for many people to unwind at the end of the day or the end of the work week. I think we inherently know that excessive amounts of libations are not healthy, and unfortunately can be lethal or lead to addictive disease. But, people want to know, “is some okay?,” “how much?,” and “which types are better than others?”
I’m in the midst of running another month long “Paleo Challenge” at our local gym right now, and this time around alcohol is off the “approved” list. As you can imagine this decision turned some people away, made others bitter and suspect of this “paleo” lifestyle, and brought many questions to my inbox. So, why am I encouraging participants to go “sans alcohol” for four weeks? Let’s consider.
First of all, where is alcohol metabolized? That’s right, in your liver. And what organ is especially important in helping our body detoxify in general? Yes, your liver! One of the most beneficial aspects of a paleo challenge is giving your body the opportunity to detox, flush itself out and heal at a cellular level. To do this well we want to support our liver and give it the best shot at this very task. If we are also throwing alcohol at it, it can’t do it’s job well. It HAS to deal with the alcohol first – no ignoring.
Secondly, what macronutrient is alcohol most similarly metabolized like? Yes. Sugar! And what is another awesome benefit of a paleo challenge? You guessed it: eliminating sugar! Excess sugar can wreak havoc with our hormones, increase systemic inflammation and possibly lead to neurological illness over time. We currently live in a “food” environment so full of sugar that it can be a very eye-opening experience to take it out of our diet. Would a “paleo challenge” be a true sugar detox if we included alcohol? No.
What are some additional cons of alcohol on our health? Alcohol can negatively impact our sleep quality, lead to headaches, skin flush and dehydration. It can also result in uninhibited decisions and thus poor food choices. Alcohol increases gut permeability, a.k.a “leaky gut;” something we are working to reverse through a paleo lifestyle. And, weight gain from excess “empty” calories and increased visceral fat is a definite concern for many people.
If you are currently participating in a “paleo challenge” or a sugar detox, remember these points. There is a purpose in refraining from your normal glass of wine or favorite cocktail for an extended period of time once in awhile. How does your body feel at the end of 30 days without it? How are you sleeping? How do you feel when you add it back in? Do you respond differently to different types of alcohol?
I do think there can be a place for alcohol within a primal lifestyle for many people (outside of a given detox period). Let’s take a look at our options:
The majority of beer is made from grains and still contains a significant amount of gluten upon bottling. Most people find they feel better and have improved GI health without gluten. So beer may not be your best choice. Bloating, night sweats and stomach distress are some of the symptoms people experience once cutting it out for an extended period of time and then reintroducing to their system.
What’s not to like about wine? A slightly sweet taste, pairs well with a good steak or filet of fish, and rests in a beautiful glass. However, as we mentioned, sugar can be a downfall! Many people also experience headaches, dehydration and a flushed feeling from this grape based alcohol. The sulfites in wine can be very irritating to people sensitive to them.
• Vodka, whisky, gin, and rum
This family of hard liquors can also stem from grain. Some of the time the gluten has been well distilled away, making them a better choice than beer. However, there is no guarantee of this and it’s possible that gluten may be added back in after distillation as part of a flavor or coloring additive.
100% tequila comes from the agave plant and contains no gluten, making it the gold-standard for many paleo peeps. However, not everyone responds well to tequila either.
Take home points:
• Take a break from alcohol every now and then. Detox! Give your body a chance to heal.
• During an alcohol-free period (whether that’s a permanent goal of yours or a bi-annual challenge) add a splash of citrus or fresh berries to your still or sparkling water to create your own special drink.
• Notice how you feel and respond to different types of alcohol. Stay away from those where the negative effects derail you from your goals.
• Stay away from added sugars. Sugary, artificial mixers, or juice and soda add-ins can greatly exaggerate the downsides to alcohol. Try soda water and/or lots of fresh lime or lemon juice over ice instead.
• Always enjoy alcohol in moderation.
• Avoid alcohol right before bed. It can disrupt the quality of your sleep whether you realize it or not.
• People often see greater and faster health changes when they eliminate or decrease their alcohol consumption.