Alcohol and longevity

Published on
June 18, 2024
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Alcohol and longevity - how to handle your drink

We all know that drinking alcohol isn’t very good for us. In the long term it increases the risk of chronic disease and mortality, and waking up to a hangover the next morning can be a painful reminder of the short-term damage. But drinking isn’t entirely harmful. In moderation, many people find that alcohol brings about relaxation, improved mood and easier social interactions without negatively impacting their life to a considerable degree.

Alcohol affects us all differently and we believe that everyone is entitled to their own choice around alcohol and whether they choose to drink it. We’ve done a deep dive into the research to pull out all the facts on how best to approach alcohol with longevity in mind. In this blog, we’ll look at some of the acute damage that drinking does, as well as some simple steps you can take to minimize the harm and help you to feel better the morning after!

Alcohol and sleep

A key way that drinking negatively impacts health and longevity is through its disruptive impact on sleep. Even a small amount of alcohol results in significant changes, reducing sleep quality even when the duration remains the same. 

Although it may seem like alcohol makes you fall asleep more easily, in reality it just makes you lose consciousness more quickly. You don’t reach the normal restorative stages of sleep until long after you pass out, and it is more fragmented and far less effective than a sober sleep [1]. This is because alcohol stimulates the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system, keeping your heart rate high and preventing your body temperature from dropping and allowing you to fall into a deep sleep. This in turn lowers heart rate variability (HRV), a key measure of health and longevity [2]. After a night of drinking you also spend far less time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the stage when the brain repairs itself and memories are reinforced [3].

Alcohol and mood

Many people drink in order to feel happier and more relaxed, and they’re not wrong to do this, since research robustly shows that low amounts of alcohol reduce stress and anxiety, facilitate social bonding and enhance positive mood [4]. However, as with all alcohol’s effects, this is highly influenced by personal circumstances, genetics and especially environment. For example, drinking in social situations with strangers is particularly likely to positively impact mood and general experience, which is one reason why alcohol is a common feature of community and social life in many parts of the world.

On the other hand, the more you drink in one session, and the more days in a row that you drink, the more likely you are to experience negative emotions associated with drinking[5]. Regular or successive nights of heavy drinking will also mean that you’ll feel less of the mood-enhancing effects next time you drink.

Beating the hangover

A hangover is a horribly familiar phenomenon for almost anyone who drinks alcohol. It’s been studied for almost as long as people have been drinking and yet we still don’t fully understand what causes hangovers or, more importantly, how exactly we can prevent them.

Science has, however, given us some useful clues. Dehydration during the drinking session - primarily due to alcohol’s diuretic effect - and the disruption of sleep discussed earlier, are recognised as crucial factors in hangover severity [6]. Depletion of electrolytes also plays a role, since alcohol causes your kidneys to secrete electrolytes at a different concentration to normal, draining your body’s stores of key electrolytes.

In addition, the accumulation of congeners, which are by-products of the fermentation process that contribute to the unique flavours of different alcoholic drinks, can worsen the symptoms of a hangover. They are found in high amounts in darker drinks, such as red wine, Guinness and bourbon, whereas clear drinks, like vodka and gin, have lower levels and have been linked to fewer negative symptoms the next day [7].

Many studies have looked at which natural products are effective for preventing or curing a hangover. According to the research, consuming red ginseng, Korean pear juice and ginger either during or after drinking can improve your body’s ability to metabolise alcohol and so help you fend off the worst hangover symptoms [8, 9]. It’s also a good idea to avoid mixing with carbonated drinks, as they can increase the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream [10].