‘Do you drink?’
It’s a frequently asked question in GP offices around the country – and for good reason. Alcohol consumption, in small amounts, can of course be part of a healthy diet. However, there is no denying its negative effect when it is consumed regularly in amounts that exceed the recommended intake guidelines.
Among those aged 15-49 living in England, alcohol is the leading cause of ill-health, disability and death. Those with existing health conditions should be even more aware of both the short and long-term effects, including those with a hormonal imbalance.
When it comes to hormones and alcohol, it’s worth being aware of how it can impact you. Dr Melina Stasinou, Hormone Specialist at The Marion Gluck Clinic explains, “During the menopause, alcohol consumption can alter the way that your body produces, metabolises and excretes hormones by affecting the function of certain organs and glands. This exacerbates menopausal symptoms, speeds up the ageing process and increases hangover severity. Not to mention, if you are undergoing hormone therapy during the perimenopause or menopause, excessive alcohol consumption can really hinder the efficacy of your treatment.”
Taking this under consideration, perhaps is it advisable to try Dry January and give your body a break from alcohol – especially after partaking in Christmas festivities? Read on for reasons why you might want to swap your wine for water.
Does Alcohol Affect Your Hormones?
When alcohol enters the body, it passes through your small intestine and into your bloodstream, where, in as little as five minutes, it can travel to your brain and begin to disrupt the activities of chemical messengers that control multiple functions, also known as your hormones. This has some well-known effects, including:
- Coordination problems
- Temperature control
- Slurred speech
- Acid reflux and vomiting
- Disturbed sleep
- Needing to pee more often
However, while many of us are familiar with these tell-tale alcohol-induced characteristics, there’s much more going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about.
Alcohol also has an impact on:
- The adrenal glands – these glands produce steroid hormones that help to regulate your metabolism and blood pressure, as well as support your immune system and several other important functions. Alcohol suppresses the function of these glands, and with regular consumption over time may cause adrenal fatigue, which can decrease the body’s ability to fight off disease, increase food cravings and influence weight gain, dampen sexual response, increase blood pressure, and more.
- Vitamin C levels – the body needs to draw from a reserve of antioxidants and vitamin C to break down alcohol in the body, which is likely to leave you with a deficiency unless it is replenished in your diet and with supplements.
- Blood sugar levels – alcohol interferes with the body’s production of insulin, a hormone that controls the amount of glucose in the blood. Because alcohol consumption increases the presence of glucose in the body, this causes blood sugar levels to spike, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes and hyperglycaemia in those with pre-existing diabetes.
- Cortisol levels – while alcohol initially lowers cortisol levels, thus temporarily inhibiting stress, over time drinking can increase levels of this hormone, especially later on (i.e. the next morning) when the body is withdrawing from the effects of the alcohol. Increased cortisol can make you feel stressed and anxious, causing digestive issues, mood swings, high blood pressure, reduced immunity and poor sleep.
The Relationship Between Menopause And Alcohol
As women, our bodies process alcohol differently to the way male bodies process alcohol. Much of this relates to the presence of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which resides in the stomach and liver, and is responsible for metabolising alcohol. Men have a high presence of active ADH in their stomachs in comparison to women. This causes women to absorb more alcohol into the bloodstream, increasing intoxication.
On top of this, age influences the impact of alcohol detoxification in women due to decreasing estrogen levels. Low estrogen affects liver function and may lead to cellular and tissue ageing, as well as an impaired immune response to injury and an imbalance between antioxidant formation and oxidative stress. In effect, this makes menopausal women more vulnerable to alcohol consumption which, as well as exacerbating the physiological impact of alcohol, can also contribute to the worsening of menopausal symptoms.
Menopausal symptoms made worse by alcohol
Due to the way in which alcohol affects hormones in general (as listed above), and especially estrogen, women going through menopause are likely to experience a worsening of symptoms.
Alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning that when a certain level of alcohol is present in the body, the blood vessels will dilate (widen). This can result in a sensation of increased body temperature, causing hot flushes. As the amount of alcohol within the body increases, the effect is reversed. The blood vessels constrict, which can cause headaches and migraines.
Anxiety and depression are common symptoms of a hormonal imbalance and occur often in menopausal women. While a drink or two may provide a temporary mood boost due to the extra GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) production in our brain and the blocking of Glutamate (a chemical that promotes anxiety), as you drink more, or indeed as your body begins to expel the alcohol from your system, you may begin to experience negative moods and mood swings.
This extends to the next day, when you are likely to experience ‘hangxiety’, a new psychological term which describes the anxiety experienced during a hangover. Menopausal women are more at risk of hangxiety due to brain and liver ageing, in addition to existing depression and anxiety.
Alcohol, sleep and the menopause
Just a few glasses of alcohol can have a relaxing effect. Some women drink more alcohol during the menopause in comparison with previous years because they think that this will help them get a better night’s sleep. However, if you drink heavily at night you will experience the reverse of this, as you will not sleep as deeply or reach the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. This means that you will experience more mood swings and irritability the next morning, as well as daytime tiredness; if this becomes a habit, you may begin to experience long term effects of poor sleep, alongside alcohol-associated mental and physical health complications.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re a regular drinker and you want to reduce alcohol consumption to help with menopausal symptoms, what’s the best way to go about doing it? Will going ‘cold turkey’ exacerbate menopausal symptoms?
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has defined levels for high risk drinking. They state that more than seven drinks per week, or more than three drinks per day, can ‘increase an individual’s risk of alcohol use disorder’ and severely impact health in general. This impact increases when we age. There is an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, loss of bone density, increased risk of depression or exacerbate pre-existing depression, and the risk of sleep disruption.
It is important to demonstrate portion control when drinking. Avoid going cold turkey, because the alcohol withdrawal increases menopausal symptoms such as confusion, irritability, increase anxiety, and low energy and fatigue. This alcohol withdrawal can be due to hyperglycemia, especially in women that are used to drinking regularly. Instead, exercise portion control alongside implementing a balanced diet, and organise an investigation such as a blood test to check for nutritional deficiencies with your hormone specialist. Vitamin B and C are especially important for liver function, and these become depleted with regular heavy drinking.
If you’re going on a night out and can’t avoid a few drinks, is there anything you can do before and after to help lower the impact on your hormones?
It is beneficial to be mindful of portion sizes. The best way to do that is to ensure you have eaten beforehand, and perhaps during or after drinking, as this can reduce absorption of alcohol by the body.
In addition, drink plenty of water. The recommended advice is: follow every one drink of alcohol with two glasses of water in order to be hydrated and in order to be able to flush the toxins from the alcohol. To avoid hyperglycemia after alcohol, consume foods containing natural sugars, like fruit juices – especially those with added vitamin B or C. The next morning, avoid excessive eating and giving into cravings, especially carbohydrates or junk food.
When To See A Hormone Specialist
If you are concerned that alcohol could be impacting your hormones, there are many things you can do at home to rebalance, including cutting alcohol consumption, improving your diet and focusing on fitness. In addition, a specialist can help with analysing your hormone profile and advising on the best route forward to help improve your menopausal experience. To book a consultation with one of our friendly and expert hormone specialists, click on the link below.