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How to drink and be healthy: your most popular questions answered

Maurice Beer M.D.
June 6th, 2021 · 6 min read

In this article:

  • Alcohol and COVID: can I drink after my vaccinations?

  • What is alcohol tolerance and did the quarantine affect mine?

  • Is drinking alcohol unhealthy?

  • How do food, alcohol, and blood sugar levels interact?

  • Does alcohol impact your hormones?

  • What exactly is a hangover?

  • What are the best ways to prevent a hangover?

  • How can I cure a hangover?

Let’s say you’re excited about a major win (like, say, completing your COVID vaccination). You’re ready to celebrate, socialize, and loosen up. Before you go nuts, you might want to consider what alcohol does to your body. Is there such a thing as “healthy drinking” with boozy seltzers? Is it even a good idea to drink right after you’ve gotten a vaccine? Read on to find out answers to that and other common health questions about drinking and hangovers.

Takeaways:

  • Moderate alcohol use around the time of COVID vaccinations is probably fine but heavy drinking may impair your immunity and worsen the feelings of vaccine side effects.

  • Drinking alcohol causes multiple reactions in the body, some of which are affected by factors like your alcohol tolerance and the food you’ve eaten.

  • A healthy lifestyle can include moderate drinking but heavy drinking can adversely affect various aspects of health.

  • There are no surefire ways to prevent or cure hangovers but knowing what alcohol does to your body can help you lessen the symptoms.

Alcohol and COVID: can I drink after my vaccinations?

With so many people receiving COVID vaccinations (and having good reason to celebrate), this is a hot topic. None of the current COVID vaccine trials directly studied the effects of alcohol, but there is some general alcohol research around vaccines and immunity that can inform your decision.

We know that heavy drinking generally impairs your immune system. Remember that your body needs a couple of weeks after your jabs to fully mount an antibody response, so heavy drinking during that period is not going to do you any favors.

Drinking alcohol after vaccinations is probably fine in moderation. In fact, there was even a study on rhesus monkeys showing that vaccine responses were better in moderate drinkers than in heavy drinkers or abstainers. (Yes, they gave monkeys regular access to alcohol. This brings up so many questions about the wild parties at the monkey pub…)

Finally, consider that if you drink enough to feel cruddy the next day, that might exacerbate any vaccine “hangover” you might get. Common COVID vaccine side effects include aches and tiredness and the idea of adding an alcohol hangover to that should deter you from partying too hard.

What is alcohol tolerance and did the quarantine affect mine?

You might think that you’re either born with a low alcohol tolerance or a high one. It is true that certain genetic factors as well as gender and weight affect your baseline. But “tolerance” refers to your body’s response to alcohol and for any individual it can change over time and also situationally.

When you habitually hit the bottle hard, over time your body responds less and less to that large amount of alcohol, meaning you have a higher tolerance. When you rarely drink, a small amount of alcohol might dramatically impact you, meaning you have a relatively low alcohol tolerance. At the same time, real-time factors affect your tolerance on any given episode of drinking — things like whether you’re sick and how much lasagna you packed in at dinner.

As the world emerges from quarantine, many are wondering how their tolerance may have changed. Many Americans found themselves boozing quite a bit more than usual at home, which probably increased their tolerance. If you find that you’re pouring more than you used to, consider abstaining from alcohol for a while to reset your tolerance. Your body will thank you (as will your wallet).

On the other hand, those who used to do their drinking at the neighborhood bar that shut its doors may have consumed less alcohol than usual in quarantine. Be mindful that your tolerance may have gone down, so ordering your usual jumbo margarita might have you swinging from the chandelier. 

Is drinking alcohol unhealthy?

The term “unhealthy” is relative (and loaded) and each person’s body is unique. The amount you drink and how often you imbibe are major factors in how healthy your drinking is (both physically and mentally). For most people, moderate alcohol intake (one drink per day for women and two for men) is not whole cloth “unhealthy.” You probably don’t have to feel guilty about kicking back with a beer after work or popping some champagne for a special occasion.

Beware of so-called “healthy” alcoholic beverages which are mostly just marketing hype. The best way to incorporate drinking into a healthy lifestyle is to understand how alcohol affects your body. That will help you better judge whether your drinking is harming your well-being.

How do food, alcohol, and blood sugar levels interact?

Most alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestines, which is the step past your stomach in your digestive tract. If your digestive system is busy processing a meal (or a bottomless bowl of nuts), alcohol will be slower to hit your bloodstream. On the other hand, if you drink on an empty stomach, that same amount of alcohol scurries right into your bloodstream, causing you to feel it quickly.

Most drinkers have probably observed the above effect themselves, but what you might not know is that drinking alcohol also affects your blood sugar levels. Your liver is in charge of releasing glucose into the bloodstream, with some checks and balances to make sure the blood sugar level stays in a healthy range.

Those checks and balances work fine when you drink a moderate amount of alcohol. (In fact, there is some evidence that moderate drinking actually makes the whole system work better and offers long term protection from problems like diabetes.) In contrast, heavy drinking can throw the system out of whack, potentially leading to insulin resistance and diabetes. If the thought of a gnarly hangover doesn’t deter you from that extra drink over your limit, maybe the idea of chronic metabolic health problems will.

And since Ketogenic diets are popular these days, it should be noted that those who are fasting or in ketosis have different metabolic activities than usual. In this state, drinking may cause dangerously low blood sugar levels, so extra caution should be used.

Does alcohol impact your hormones?

We already know that alcohol consumption can throw off the hormone insulin. It’s no surprise that heavy or habitual drinking can also impact other hormones that are responsible for a variety of things from bone health to sexual and reproductive health. Alcohol can also elevate your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and a sustained cortisol spike can cause long term health problems.

It’s a good idea to monitor certain hormones like cortisol and Vitamin D; if your levels are not ideal, consider whether alcohol might be a culprit.

What exactly is a hangover?

If you’ve ever had one of those nights when you went a little nuts with the kamikaze shots, you probably already know how a hangover feels — tiredness, headache, nausea, and general crankiness about life with all its loud noises and bright lights. But what does alcohol do to your body that causes this?

We’ve already seen that drinking can affect your blood sugar levels. It also dehydrates you, causes your blood vessels to expand, and causes an inflammatory response. All of these reactions can contribute to hangover symptoms, which may also be aggravated by a poor night’s sleep. (Even if you “pass out” you are likely not getting the restorative sleep your body needs). 

What are the best ways to prevent a hangover?

Despite the home remedy your buddy swears by or the gimmicky products on the market, the only foolproof way to avoid that day-after malaise is to abstain from drinking. If you do choose to enjoy some alcohol, keeping your intake moderate along with hydrating and getting plenty of rest will help reduce any hangover symptoms.

There is some evidence that lighter colored alcohols (like vodka and white wine) cause less severe hangovers than darker colored alcohols (like brandy and red wine) because the latter contain compounds called congeners. But that does not mean you should throw down unlimited amounts of liquor just because it’s light colored. Also, be mindful that heavy amounts of sugar or salt can aggravate the reactions that alcohol causes, so consider that before licking the sugared rim of your third chocolate martini.

Finally, remember that what’s in your stomach impacts alcohol absorption, so eating food before and while drinking may help reduce hangover symptoms. Fatty foods especially help to slow the absorption process, which may be why some people crave those greasy garlic fries whenever they drink. 

How can I cure a hangover?

Now that you know how to reduce the chance of a nasty hangover, you’ll never get one again, right? Well, just in case, here is some advice for the times when you get a little carried away with the Cosmopolitans or when you don’t drink enough of the nightclub’s $20 bottles of water.

There are supplements you can take that may help ease the grief of that dreaded hangover, but scientific research on their effectiveness is limited. Beware of products promising to cure hangovers that may do nothing more than cure your wallet of some dollars.

Your best bet once you’ve got a hangover is to follow the same tips for preventing hangovers — that includes drinking plenty of fluids, getting rest, and eating a good meal (hello, breakfast burrito).

Whether you’re concerned about hangovers or vaccines or anything in between, understanding how your body reacts to alcohol can help you enjoy moderate drinking while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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