After the excesses of the festive holidays, many people’s New Year’s resolution is to reduce their alcohol consumption. We know that alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for developing conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. It even affects the basic way our brain functions. So what makes us drink it?
The reason for alcohol’s feel-good factor is found in some of the brain’s messenger chemicals, known as neurotransmitters. Just as an example, Dopamine – our reward and motivation chemical, is increased threefold by alcohol, giving us a burst of pleasure, but we quickly develop a tolerance to it, so we end up needing more to get the same ‘hit’. Similarly, our ‘happy’ chemical, Serotonin, is increased in the short term, but becomes less available to us as the body’s processes are broken down by alcohol.
Other chemicals which influence our excitability and our calmness are also affected. So over time, alcohol can make it more difficult for us to relax and unwind. If that’s not enough to make us reach for a drink, regular high intakes of alcohol slow down the rate of liver detoxification, and elevate levels of our stress hormones, creating a vicious circle!
Fortunately, Nutrition is key to helping regulate how our neurotransmitters and our hormones work. You can use the highly potent power of food to help yourself combat cravings for alcohol, by providing the chemicals you need to facilitate complicated physical processes which can help you regain balance. Animal studies show that diets high in complex carbohydrates, and stabilising blood sugar levels, often leads to voluntary reductions of alcohol.
As a nutritional therapist, here are some of the key things I consider important when thinking about alcohol reduction:
Low blood sugars lead to increases in stress hormones. Eat main meals no more than 5 hours apart and consume a small, healthy snack between meals, to help keep blood sugar levels steady.
Eat healthy carbohydrates
Choose high fibre, slow releasing carbohydrates, like whole grain rice, bread and pasta, pulses, root vegetables and whole fruits. Avoid white bread or pasta, and processed foods.
Eat small quantities of protein at each meal
Aim for 15-20g protein per meal, drawn from a mixture of low fat pulses, oily fish, chicken and eggs. Avoid high protein diets, which create harder work for the liver and kidneys. Remember, we are reducing alcohol to give these organs a break!
Increase vegetables and fruits
Think beyond 5 per day. Half of your plate should ideally be piled high with mainly vegetables and some fruits.
Eat your greens
Cruciferous vegetables in particular, support the detoxification of stress hormones.
Feed your gut
Help regain some healthy bacteria in your gut by adding some additional probiotics to your diet. Natural sources include plain live yogurt, kefir, or fermented vegetables like sauerkraut. Additionally, foods such as leeks, garlic, onions, and pulses can help feed the ‘good’ bacteria too.
Keep caffeine intake low
These increase stress hormone levels and also disrupt the normal balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Herbal teas and diluted fruit juices are a good alternative.
For individual advice, a naturopathic nutritional therapist would create a personalised plan to support alcohol reduction and to promote a healthy brain and liver function. This may include tailored dietary suggestions, supplements, and other naturopathic dietary and lifestyle options.
By CNM lecturer, Adam Greer.