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Alcohol and Systemic Inflammation

The antioxidant benefits of a glass of wine have long been touted as a good reason to enjoy from time to time, but how does alcohol impact inflammation? There have been studies that have shown that a small amount of some types of alcohol (e.g. one single 6oz glass of red wine), can have mild anti-inflammatory effects on your body. More recently, the Canadian government has issued new guidelines around alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, additional research has shown that whatever mild benefits offered by the occasional glass of wine ceases to exist as soon as you have more than two drinks a week. Basically, there is a significant relationship between inflammation and alcohol consumption. This means that one glass here or there has little to no impact on your overall health, but increased consumption (3+ drinks/week) is reflected in a significant increase in risk for cardiovascular disease, liver disease, inflammation, and cancer. This more recent data is disappointing for many, including yours truly, who regularly enjoy a glass of wine or more over an evening.

Why does alcohol result in increased inflammation?

One of the first things to remember is that the reason alcohol impacts your mental state and gives you that nice rosy feeling of relaxation and reduced inhibition is because it is a toxin, hence intoxication!! In the acute phase, or what we might commonly consider the hangover, alcohol consumption can result in dehydration, inflamed stomach lining, and swelling in your extremities. More frequent alcohol consumption can result in chronic inflammation. In chronic inflammation, your gut bacteria can become overgrown, resulting in the release of endotoxins (your bodies own toxins) which activate immune cells and trigger an inflammatory response. In your liver, alcohol can cause an increase in C-reactive protein. When there is an increase of C-reactive protein in the bloodstream, there is an increase in inflammation throughout the entire body. Health care practitioners use increased C-reactive protein on blood tests as a predictor of heart disease. Beyond the obvious discomfort associated with chronic inflammation, there are also some serious health concerns for the body.

Chronic inflammation can impact your breathing and lung function because of damage to the celia and immune cells lining your airways. When the celia (fine hair-like projections that help move toxins and foreign particles up out of your lungs) are damaged, they are no longer able to move unwanted particulates up and outwards. Similarly, when mucus producing immune cells lining your airway can’t function to protect the cell walls and trap microorganisms, a higher proportion of foreign organisms can make it to the lungs resulting in an increased risk of respiratory irritation or infection.

Because alcohol can cross the blood brain barrier, it can cause damage and inflammation directly in your brain. In the short term, the impairment impacts all the brain functions we associate with being drunk: decision making, balance, emotional and impulse control. In the long term, chronic inflammation associated with alcohol use results in reduced brain volume as well as scarring on brain tissue, which is related to memory loss, reduced cognitive function and mood changes.

In your musculoskeletal system, dehydration impacts the amount of synovial fluid available to lubricate your joints. The purines in alcohol also break down into uric acid that can crystallize in the joints causing pain and leading to conditions like osteoarthritis and gout (a form of very painful acute inflammatory arthritis). Uric acid can also crystallize in the kidneys causing kidney stones. There is also some evidence that increased alcohol consumption can limit the body’s ability to absorb certain vitamins (e.g. thiamin, B12, folic acid and zinc), reducing the available nutrient content in the body, which can also suppress the immune system and irritate joints.

In your bones, alcohol consumption can decrease your body's ability to utilize calcium properly to help build and maintain bone density. This can be extremely harmful for those with growing bones and for those worried about fragile bones.

As for your most exposed protection against the world, your skin can also be affected by alcohol. Over consumption, more than 2 glasses per week, increases dehydration which can decrease your skin's resilience to weather and abrasion. Less alcohol consumption can help keep your skin hydrated and have less wrinkles!!!! Enough said right?! But no, alcohol’s effect on systemic inflammation can also worsen inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis.

The long term impacts of alcohol use on inflammation are significant throughout the body, so to temper the impact, moderation is key. The current Canadian guidelines for low risk alcohol consumption are to have no more than 2 standard servings per week: A standard serving of wine is 5oz, beer/cider is 12oz and hard liquor is 1.5oz. A few tips to meet this goal are to drink slowly, for every alcoholic drink have a glass of water, and to eat while drinking to support conscious consumption!

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