Those of us who love a nightcap or glass of wine (or two) have all asked ourselves: is alcohol bad for hormones? Read on to find out our thoughts and what to think about this holiday season and beyond.
Understanding how your body processes alcohol
When we enjoy a glass of wine, beer, or a cocktail, it’s up to our liver to break down, or metabolize, the alcohol. Our livers are amazing (and essential!) and perform more than 600 jobs in the body. Some of these functions include producing bile, metabolizing macronutrients and other things we ingest, storing vitamins and minerals and glycogen, and producing and clearing cholesterol.
When you drink, enzymes in your liver process the alcohol. Even though it’s considered a toxin, your liver can absolutely break down alcohol–it is responsible for clearing other chemicals from the body, too. But in order to do it, your liver has to press pause on all of its other jobs. And, even so, it can only metabolize about one drink per hour. That’s why when you drink too much too fast, your blood alcohol level goes up and you end up feeling it.
Is it true women can’t drink as much as men?
Everyone is different. How well your body metabolizes alcohol is unique to your health and lifestyle. However, as a general rule, there’s a reason why the guys in your life can seem to have more drinks without the same effects.
A liver enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (or ADH) is responsible for breaking down most of the alcohol you drink. But how much ADH you have is dependent on a few factors. One of those is gender. As a whole, women’s bodies just down secrete as much ADH as men do.
Is alcohol bad for hormones? Here’s how it affects them
Alcohol can have an effect on hormones because of how it is processed by the liver. Like we mentioned earlier, your liver is responsible for a variety of all-important tasks. One of those is excreting excess hormones from the body. Some research indicates that women who drink alcohol have higher levels of estrogen due to the liver and digestive system not being able to excrete it through bowel movements. They also have a higher risk for low progesterone.
Progesterone and estrogen are important to keep in an appropriate ratio because they counteract the other’s effects. Too little progesterone can lead to insomnia and menstrual irregularities, is associated with increased risk for anxiety, and more. Low progesterone is worse when estrogen is higher than it should be. Having too much estrogen in relation to progesterone can result in frequent and heavy periods, tender breasts, mood changes, and also raise your risk for estrogen-sensitive cancers and other conditions.
In the short term, kicking back with a drink may make you feel lighter or happier. When we drink, we get a quick boost of serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone/neurotransmitter that helps with our mood. But heavy, chronic drinking is another story. It depletes serotonin, which can worsen depression. With less serotonin, it’s harder for your body to make melatonin and fall asleep. Also, many bodily systems can become dangerously affected. It’s well documented that alcohol interferes with communication between the nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system. This leads to multiple hormonal imbalances, including thyroid issues, stress problems, reproductive dysfunction, and increased risk for depression.
What amount of alcohol is bad for my hormones and what is “okay” to drink?
We all want the answer to this question, but it’s impossible to pinpoint. Everyone is different. Currently, guidelines define one drink per day for women as “moderate” drinking and that that amount is usually safe for most individuals.
For many women, safely indulging a little during the holidays with an extra cocktail or glass of wine won’t disrupt hormone balance long-term. But that depends on your personal health. Even moderate drinking guidelines may be too much for your body and your hormones. Remember: increased alcohol consumption can be associated with weight gain, pancreatitis, and high blood pressure. It can also affect the immune system and the liver itself.
If I over-indulge in alcohol, what helps?
Contrary to popular belief, a good cup of strong coffee isn’t going to help your body when you’ve sipped on too much wine. Really, what your body needs is time to process the alcohol. Alcohol is dehydrating. Be sure to drink extra fluids, whether water or an electrolyte-based liquid.
Should I take milk thistle if I plan on having a drink or two?
Milk thistle has become intensely popular for its reported effects on liver health. As a supplement, it’s usually safe for people to take for a short period of time, such as up to 41 months. (Check with a provider first.)
But milk thistle isn’t for everyone or every goal, whether it’s general liver health or hormone balance. Anyone allergic to chrysanthemums, daisies, marigolds, and Asteraceae/Compositae plants may also be allergic to milk thistle. And it’s not without side effects. Some people experience diarrhea, bloating, gas, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. The severity of these symptoms varies.
Some sources recommend milk thistle after going out for a drink. But one little but important piece of information gets left out. Alcohol irritates the stomach through increased acid production. This acid aggravates feelings of upset stomach. It also can inflame the lining of the stomach (gastritis). If your digestive tract is already upset because of alcohol, it’s possible that, for some people, adding milk thistle right on top of that might make for an even more upset stomach.
Even though milk thistle gets used as part of treatment for a variety of conditions, from liver disease to diabetes, this is a supplement where we recommend always talking with a provider first. Women with endometriosis and hormone-sensitive conditions and cancers need to avoid milk thistle as well as limit alcohol.