Whether it’s sipping mulled wine at a cozy winter gathering or toasting the New Year with champagne, alcohol is such an integral part of holiday events that it can be difficult to avoid. The first thing you get handed at every office party, family gathering, or festive celebration is usually an alcoholic drink.
And no wonder. The “season of joy” can be a stressful, emotionally loaded time. Seasonal blues may flare up, triggering some people to self-medicate. For others, the holiday season is simply a prime opportunity to overindulge. Whatever the reason, the sheer omnipresence of alcohol means you can easily end up drinking more than you normally would.
We all know that alcohol isn’t good for us – but nor is total deprivation. As a licensed nutritionist, my approach is to find the best ways to offset occasional indulgences, so that seasonal fun can be healthy fun too.
What happens when we drink alcohol?
Alcohol affects chemical messengers in the reward centre of the brain, evoking the euphoric effects associated with intoxication. This is most pronounced in the first twenty minutes of exposure, which explains why the initial stages of the “alcohol high” feel quite different from the later stages.
Alcohol also interferes with the connection from the frontal lobe of the brain to the rear lobe of the brain, which shuts down the activity of the pineal gland (our third eye), impairing our ability to think clearly and intuitively (one of the reasons we’re not allowed to drive a car after a few drinks!) It also erodes the production of the feel-good hormones serotonin and oxytocin, which is why we feel so miserable the day after.
The liver bears the brunt of the work when it comes to alcohol consumption, as it’s the body’s first line of defense against ingested toxins. If the liver is overwhelmed, excess alcohol circulates until it can be processed, wreaking damage throughout the body as it continues to circulate. To prevent this from happening, it is very important to support the liver’s natural detoxification capacities while consuming alcohol.
My favorite damage control tips
Hydrate: Alcohol dehydrates the body – so drink up! Have one glass of water after each alcoholic drink, and drink at least 2 or 3 liters the next day. Coconut water is particularly good for hangovers. It’s high in electrolytes that replenish the body’s water balance after dehydration. Add a pinch of Himalayan salt and lemon juice to your water to help alkalize. Green juices are also a good choice, as they’re high in minerals and electrolytes.
Get your B’s: B vitamins are needed by the liver to activate its key detoxification pathways, phase one and phase two, both critical for the elimination of alcohol. Without B vitamins, alcohol is not properly cleared, leaving it to circulate and cause harm. What’s more, drinking decreases your B vitamin reserves, so you’re depleted from the very start. Instead of supplements, try to get B vitamins from natural sources such as organic fish and poultry, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast.
Eat well before and after: Some people think a hangover is a good excuse to grease it up with burgers and fries. This will only make you feel worse. Enjoy your protein and good fats – eggs, avocado and spinach or kale are great breakfast choices.
Eat before you drink: Always make sure your stomach is lined with food, which allows alcohol to be absorbed at a slower pace. This is a good time to enjoy slow release carbohydrates such as brown rice, sweet potato and quinoa.
Sweat it out: Exercise stimulates the lymphatic system to excrete toxins and gets the blood flowing. Enjoy a quick hard work out the next day. Exercise also releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones and can help improve your mood. Yoga also helps for hangovers.
Opt for “healthier types of alcohol”: Clear alcohols like vodka or gin without the sugary mixes, alcohol-free beer or sulfate-free wine (sulfates can cause liver damage) are the best choices. Be aware of mixed drinks as they may add syrups or other sweeteners. Enjoy with lemon juice and sparkling water. Sugary drinks make hangovers much worse.
Support your liver: The brassica vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) contain enzymes that support liver detox, so load up on them. Lemon water and apple cider vinegar are also beneficial (1 tbsp. in water, with ½ tsp. turmeric). Eat grated carrots with lemon juice and Himalayan salt and enjoy a green juice.
Avoid caffeine: A recent study found that drinking coffee protects the liver of heavy drinkers and was used to reinforce coffee’s reputation as everyone’s favorite day after cure. But the fact remains that coffee can make a queasy stomach worse, increases dehydration and requires additional detoxification by an already overworked liver. Combining painkillers with coffee brings temporary relief, but is risky. Aspirin can irritate the stomach and Paracetamol and Tylenol are toxic to the liver.
Use Milk Thistle for an extra boost: For centuries, this liver-supporting herb has been used as a “liver potion,” especially in the areas of liver repair, rebuilding and cleansing. Milk Thistle contains a chemical known as silymarin. Because it improves the overall function of the liver, it’s useful for cirrhosis and other damage done to the liver by alcohol and intoxicants. Its strong detoxifying capabilities also soften the impact of a hangover. It is widely available in capsule form or you can get it as a powder from The Clever Kitchen.
Bottom line: If and when you do drink, be mindful of how much and what you’re drinking, take extra good care of your liver and don’t forget to have a good time!
PS: Save the date: If you’re looking to get the New Year off to a healthy start, join us at the upcoming “Let’s have Lunch – Detox Time” lunch workshop at Stars’n’bars on January 10th from 12:30 – 14:00. Put it in your diary and Happy Holidays!