One of the questions I often get asked by my clients is whether they can still drink alcohol whilst working on their hormones or fertility. Whilst my approach is one of nourishment and not deprivation, I am never one to eliminate things out of my clients’ diets without evaluating the effect it will have on their bodies but also on their mental wellbeing. After all, I believe that we should be enjoying the lives we have created for ourselves and do things that bring us joy, and often that includes food and drink too 🙂
Being Italian, I have memories of my great aunt mixing a drop of red wine in my water and calling it ‘red medicine’. This aunt, incidentally, went on to live into very old age and was as sharp as a tack till the bitter end. There are plenty of studies on longevity which look at compounds – such as resveratrol – contained in red wine which have been shown to have beneficial effects on the body. Now, does this mean we should all be drinking red wine every day for health and longevity? Hmm, maybe not.
In this blog post I wanted to address the effects of alcohol on hormonal health, to explain how it affects our body’s physiology, so that you can determine whether at this moment in time, with your particular health goals in mind, this is something which can be included in your lifestyle.
A lot of us seek refuge in that glass of wine at the end of the day. Last year, at the beginning of lockdown, with all the stress surrounding the uncertainty of our situations, I myself noticed reaching for that glass of wine in the evening (you know, wine o’clock) to wind down from the day’s stresses. A lot of my friends and clients did too. After a few weeks of this ritual, I started noticing that for the first time in years I was getting PMS symptoms: irritability, mood swings and skin breakouts, and my periods – which are usually pain free – were starting to get uncomfortable. A lot of my clients reported feeling the same way too. Now, I realise that these issues will have been exacerbated by other habits a lot of us picked up during that time, such as staying up late numbing out in front of Netflix, and getting stressed out by reading the news. But let’s zoom in on alcohol to begin with, and have a look at three ways in which alcohol can affect our overall hormonal health and fertility.
Alcohol disrupts blood sugar
When we ingest alcohol, often it causes blood sugar to temporarily rise, triggering the release of insulin. Insulin’s job is to take glucose out of the body and into the cells. Regular consumption of alcohol can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) which can cause symptoms such as lightheadedness and fatigue, but also predisposes us to overeating. Ever experienced the munchies after drinking alcohol? That will be your blood sugar dropping! And let’s face it, the food choices we make when we’ve had a few drinks are not always the most nourishing, right? I’m thinking of crisps and fried foods, baked goods or burgers (…maybe that’s just me!) Heavy drinking is often associated with insulin dysregulation, which can then lead to more serious health issues such as Diabetes.
You may be thinking: cool story bro, but what does this have to do with my hormonal health? Well, blood sugar balance and hormonal health are very closely linked. When our blood sugar drops, our body sees that as a stressor and will release adrenaline and cortisol to get that blood sugar back up. If we are constantly on a blood sugar roller coaster, we will constantly be pumping out cortisol, which will have a negative impact on the production of our sex hormones, especially progesterone (which, amongst other things, is the hormone which supports a healthy pregnancy). Progesterone is the precursor hormone to cortisol, and when our body perceives a stress (such as low blood sugar) it will prioritise the production of cortisol over progesterone – hey presto, we have ourselves a hormonal imbalance. You can read more about how cortisol affects our hormones in this blog post .
I often see women who are running on adrenaline due to stressful lives or not eating enough reaching for that alcoholic drink to wind down. I was one of them, so no judgement here! However, one thing I’ve noticed is that once you work on blood sugar regulation throughout the day, most people will find they no longer have the desire to drink in the evenings. I’ve seen this countless times, and even experienced it myself! If this is something you feel you may need help with, I’d love to chat with you!
Alcohol is taxing to the liver
Let’s not beat around the bush here: alcohol is a toxic substance to our body. Whenever we drink it, our body will prioritise the detoxification and excretion of alcohol before anything else. Our main detoxification organ is our liver, which performs over 500 functions on a daily basis. When we drink alcohol, our liver will prioritise the elimination of this substance over all of its other functions. Some of the liver’s main functions are detoxifying and eliminating excess estrogens from the body, as well as converting our inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into the active form (T3), as well as storing glucose molecules in the form of glycogen to carry us through periods of fasting such as the nighttime. So, when our liver is busy working on getting rid of alcohol from our system, the estrogen we have used and needs to get excreted is left circulating in our body, causing estrogen dominance symptoms including night sweats, painful periods, insomnia, weight gain, headaches, migraines and mood swings. Click here to read more about estrogen dominance. If we’re impairing the conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver, then we may also be experiencing hypothyroid symptoms such as cold hands and feet, sluggish digestion, low mood, weight gain or inability to lose weight. An overburdened liver will also compromise our detoxification abilities as well as blood sugar regulation.
Alcohol is an estrogenic substance
In addition to placing a burden on the liver and hindering the detoxification of estrogen from our bodies, alcohol itself has an estrogenic effect on our system. Studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption affects our body’s estrogen and progesterone levels – both in pre and post-menopausal women. Alcohol not only increases the levels of estrogen (by converting our testosterone to estrogen), but it has also been shown to decrease progesterone levels in premenopausal women. (1)
Remember: estrogen is the hormone of growth and proliferation, so when it is in excess or unopposed by progesterone, we may see growths where we don’t want them: polyps, fibroids, endometriosis, and even cancer. Studies have shown that alcohol consumption increases estrogen levels in postmenopausal women on HRT and increases their chances of breast cancer. (2)
And here’s the kicker: when our estrogen is elevated, so is our cortisol, which will affect our blood sugar balance, our thyroid health, our adrenal health and nervous system in general.
“Alcoholic drinks in general, with the estrogen from the yeast at least, will stimulate the adrenals to produce both estrogen and cortisol and all kinds of estrogen increases the cortisol exposure..’ Ray Peat (3)
A study found that “alcohol disrupts the communication between nervous, endocrine and immune system and causes hormonal disturbances that lead to profound and serious consequences at physiological and behavioral levels. These alcohol-induced hormonal dysregulations affect the entire body and can result in various disorders such as stress abnormalities, reproductive deficits, body growth defect, thyroid problems, immune dysfunction, cancers, bone disease and psychological and behavioral disorders.”(4)
If you’ve read this far, you may be feeling like you need a drink to de-stress 🙂 Now, you know I’m not one for deprivation, but let’s not kid ourselves here: if you are struggling with hormonal, fertility, adrenal issues, drinking alcohol is most likely not helping matters. This does not mean that we can never enjoy a glass of prosecco or a cocktail, but it needs to be looked at in the context of our current health status and what we are looking to achieve. As I said at the beginning of this blog, my philosophy is all about enjoying life rather than living like a monk in the name of health. But every person is different and there may be times when we need to look at our alcohol consumption and decide whether it is serving us or not.
Has any of this information resonated with you? If you would like to have a one-to-one chat with me to see how making some dietary and lifestyle habits can help your health flourish, then click here to book a free 30 minute discovery call with me and let’s get you started on your healing journey!