Why Nutrition Is Key To Changing Your Relationship With Alcohol, From A Doctor of Clinical Nutrition
As a doctor of clinical nutrition, I've spent many years unearthing new and innovative ways of healing. As an expert in functional nutrition and functional medicine, I specialize in understanding the root cause of our symptoms and what is driving the health concerns we experience on a deeper level—and then how to heal them using food and supplementation.
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That's why, when it came to changing my own drinking habits, it wasn't enough for me to hear the conversations around managing my stress, dealing with traumas and wounds, and taking the traditional approaches to sobriety. I have a family history of mental health challenges as well as addiction and have specialized in these areas to understand the root causes of why we drink on a deeper, biochemical level.
Becoming sober, exploring a sober-curious lifestyle, and generally cutting back on alcohol intake are on trend. Due to the rise in "Quit Lit" books and a massive uptick in the nonalcoholic beverage space, it's easier than ever to say no to alcohol and say yes to waking up sans hangover with all of the energy to tackle your wellness routine. You don't have to be an alcoholic or identify as having a drinking problem to decide you want to take some time off; many are now taking a sober oath for better health and living a more intentional life.
Potential benefits of a drinking timeout.
Taking time off from drinking can be beneficial for so many reasons. And I'm not just talking about forgoing the dreaded hangover, but cutting back on your alcohol intake can be key to unlocking a ton of benefits for your health—especially if you're a moderate or heavy drinker.
These benefits include:
- Better digestion
- Clear skin
- Better energy
- Less anxiety
- Better mood
- Mental clarity
- Healthy weight
- And much more
And while these short-term benefits sound sweet enough, the long-term benefits of cutting back booze are even bigger. Those who experience any chronic health issues—autoimmune diseases, hormone imbalances, mood and mental health issues, fertility challenges, and more—may find long-term relief when eliminating alcohol.
Nutrition plays a bigger role than you realize.
But how do we give up happy hour? A bottle of wine with the girls? Or the evening drink after a long day?
When I talk to clients about changing their drinking habits, they're often reluctant to give up their beloved glass of wine or favorite cocktail. It can be hard to change our habits. In my own experience, it sounded crazy to stop drinking—my friendships, working relationships, social events, and just about every other thing I did included alcohol. But now, after more than a year without a drink, I can't imagine life with a drink.
We often chalk it up to willpower, but it's not just about the will to say no to a drink when you're out with friends. There are biochemical processes at play in the body. This is where nutrition and our health come into the picture. Stress, nutrient deficiencies, gut imbalances, low brain neurotransmitters, hormone imbalances, and other systems out of balance can affect how we seek alcohol in our lifestyle.
When I work with clients in both one-on-one and group settings on nutrition and changing your relationship with alcohol, these are the three key areas I focus on:
1. Blood sugar
About 95% of regular drinkers experience blood sugar irregularities. This is due to the blood sugar increase brought on by taking a drink, followed by a sharp drop shortly thereafter. This is part of the mechanism behind why once we have the first drink, it's hard to stop at just one. By balancing our blood sugar on a regular basis, we can more easily kick alcohol cravings and begin to shift our normal drinking habits.
2. The gut
The gut plays a key role in our desire to drink. Regular alcohol consumption can significantly affect the health of our gut microbiome (the balance of healthy probiotic bacteria to more harmful bacteria) and can also contribute to leaky gut. When we drink alcohol regularly, we change the balance of healthy bacteria and allow for overgrowth of more harmful bacteria that thrives off of sugar and alcohol, which can also contribute to cravings.
3. The brain
Low levels of serotonin and dopamine, two of our "feel-good" neurotransmitters, can contribute to low mood and trigger cravings for alcohol and other substances that provide a quick "hit" or pick-me-up. We often have low levels of these neurotransmitters when we're deficient in B vitamins, amino acids, and other critical nutrients. What's worse? Regular drinking further depletes those nutrients, creating a vicious cycle.
How to set yourself up for success.
While focusing on the three areas above, here are some of my key nutrition tips for rebalancing your system when changing the way you drink:
1. Eat to balance your blood sugar.
Since low blood sugar can lead to alcohol cravings (along with sugar and carb cravings), it's ideal to eat a diet rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats. These food groups help balance blood sugar to avoid drops in levels from high-carb or high-sugar foods. I suggest aiming for about 20 to 25 grams of protein at each meal. While changing your habits, I'd also advise having a healthy meal or snack every three to four hours.
2. Incorporate functional foods to support the gut and elimination pathways.
A fiber-rich diet ensures healthy bowel movements, which help eliminate waste from the liver, gallbladder and gut. Fiber also feeds healthy gut bacteria (aka probiotics), so focus on fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Other favorite foods that support digestion and liver detoxification include beets, cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale), and citrus fruits.
3. Support better brain health.
Certain nutrients like vitamin B6, B12, folate, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc are key for supporting serotonin and dopamine production. Amino acids, found in protein, are also critical building blocks for these important brain chemicals—therefore, eating protein sources that include the full range of essential amino acids is important. Omega-3s are another excellent brain support nutrient that also helps improve gut health and damage from alcohol use.
In the end, be gentle with yourself. Know that for most of us, changing our drinking habits can be a long, explorative process to determine what works best for you. There are many support groups, including my Functional Sobriety Network, where you can engage with like-minded individuals, gain support, and learn more about using nutrition to support a new relationship with alcohol.