The holiday season is upon us and our calendars are filled with social plans and party invites, which means thinking about what to wear, what to bring, and…(let’s face it) how to avoid being hungover.
There are a lot of other nutritionists who would tell you that the healthiest choice this holiday seasons is to avoid alcohol all together and they would be right.
I’m not going to tell you that though.
Because, for most of you, I know that’s not realistic.
I ADMIT IT: I’m a holistic nutritionist and I drink alcohol. There. I said it. I’m a normal human and I’m guessing since you’re here on my site, you are too.
Obviously, I’m not advocating binge drinking. I’m talking about some practical tips for occasional and responsible alcohol consumption. I will make sure to put a disclaimer at the end of this blog just to make sure you’re clear on that.
So, here we go. Let’s talk about what alcohol does to the body and how we can try to naturally mediate the poison and reduce the suffering.
Here’s a little Alcohol 101: (this is REALLY interesting, but feel free to skip straight to the numbered points below if you want to get straight to the nutritional advice.)
When we’re imbibing on wine, beer or other spirits, what we’re actually consuming is ethanol or ethyl alcohol – that’s the main ingredient formed from the fermentation of fruits and grains. Ethanol is a drug that depresses (slows down) your brain and nervous system, which is why intoxication can lead to blurred vision, slurred speech and lack of coordination. And then there are some other toxic by-products formed in the fermentation processed called congeners (these are higher in darker coloured alcohols) like methanol and acetone which get converted into formaldehyde during metabolism. These byproducts have been linked to worsened hangover symptoms.
Our lovely liver is the organ that bears the brunt of all this. Since our livers are the largest organ responsible for detoxing, they’re like the alcohol control board of your bod. And since it has at least 500 other functions to perform, it can only handle so much alcohol at one time. If you drink more than it has time to metabolize you become intoxicated – basically, you are poisoned. On top of all this, once alcohol reaches the liver to be “dealt with” it gets broken down into a compound called acetaldehyde which is actually more toxic than alcohol itself. If you drink too much or don’t have enough of the specific enzyme to break down this new toxin – voila – you get a hangover.
Plus, alcohol is a diuretic, which means it dehydrates you. Duh. But, did you know that the liver also needs water to do its detox job…so while symptoms (headache, dry mouth) of dehydration are part-and-parcel of a hangover, it’s a double whammy depriving your liver cells of all the components it needs to do its job.
So let’s get to the goods.
Alcoholic drinks don’t contain fibre, protein or fat to slow down digestion and, thus, the drug gets rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. That’s why you feel “buzzed” quicker on an empty stomach. I’d advise you to eat a healthy meal or snack before hitting that holiday party to help slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and also protect the lining of your stomach.
- B vitamins:
Alcohol depletes the body of B vitamins, which are a critical component in our metabolism, nerve function and energy. In fact, the liver detox pathways rely on Bs to work effectively. So, give your liver and your metabolism a helping hand and eat plenty of beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds and eggs.
And you could also try popping a 1-2 of your B complex vitamins before and after drinking.
- Vitamin C:
Alcohol also likely depletes the body of the powerful antioxidant vitamin C. Not only does the liver need this vitamin to detox properly, but your adrenals could use the helping hand since they burn through vitamin C when stressed – and you can bet that intoxication is a stressor! So, get plenty of brightly coloured fruits and veggies (like strawberries, kiwis, bell peppers.) and dark leafy greens. Citrus is great too!
Magnesium is yet another incredibly important nutrient that is depleted by the stress of alcohol. Most of us are already deficient in this mighty mineral that performs over 300 biochemical function in the body, so it’s always a good idea to get as much of it through the diet as possible. You can find magnesium in abundance in dark, leafies like spinach, kale, Chard and also in legumes like black beans, pumpkin seeds, avocado and bananas. But, if you’re planning on more than 1-2 drinks at that holiday party, you might want to consider sipping on a little CALM (magnesium citrate) or taking a bioavailable magnesium supplement like Magnesium bisglycinate. You can also buy magnesium oils or soak in a nice Epsom salt bath when you get home from your soiree.
Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage are all high in sulfuric compounds that boost important liver enzymes which allow it to detox more efficiently – the high levels of antioxidants in cruciferous also help to protect the liver from the oxidative stress of drinking alcohol. They’re tasty, they’re versatile. Eat them as often as you can!
Foods like lemons, apple cider vinegar or bitter greens like arugula are going to help you. Besides containing vitamin C, these tangy/bitter tasting foods stimulate the liver and, as you know by now, nudging the liver into action is always a good thing – especially in this toxic overload situation. You can also look into an herbal tincture of Swedish Bitters at your local health food store.
- NAC Foods:
Eating foods with a compound called N-Acetyl cysteine (NAC) which is an altered form of an important amino acid called cysteine which ultimately gets converted into glutathione which is the body’s MASTER antioxidant. This is the good stuff and really helps the liver do its job. So, you’re going to want to mow down on foods that contain high amounts of NAC throughout the holidays especially. For plant-based forms of this amino acid, look to oats, broccoli, red pepper, garlic and bananas. And if you feel that’s still not enough, look into NAC supplements to up your intake.
This is an obvious one, but still worth mentioning. Since we already discussed alcohol is a diuretic, you’re going to want to make sure you stay sufficiently hydrated. I recommend doing this with pure, filtered water or herbal teas, but when it comes to alcohol consumption and the resulting electrolyte losses, I’d also recommend reaching for coconut water leading up to your party and afterwards as it has good amounts natural salts like magnesium and potassium and also a rich source of B vitamins…all of which (if you’ve been paying attention) are needed to counter the ill effects of alcohol.
At the end of the day all of these liver-supporting foods should be a mainstay in your diet and you should always be adequately hydrated. But, I just thought I’d use the holiday hangover blog as a good excise to remind you to LOVE YOUR LIVER.
Please drink responsibly, moderately and balance your holiday parties with an overall healthy approach to life. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Alcohol is an addictive drug. Overconsumption results in a staggering amount of negative health impacts. Always drink responsibility. Never drink and drive. Pregnant women should avoid alcohol. For more information on liver and addiction guidelines in Canada please visit:
Centre For Addiction and Mental Health