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Should You Drink Alcohol on the Carnivore Diet?

by | Last updated Jul 29, 2021 | Drinks, FUNDAMENTALS

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has been consumed all over the world for thousands of years. Alcohol is made by fermenting fruits, grains, and vegetables and definitely not a carnivore food. Alcohol is toxic and can wreak havoc on all aspects of your health. But there are also arguments supporting moderate alcohol consumption due to claimed health benefits. So, should you drink alcohol on the carnivore diet?

You should not drink alcohol on the carnivore diet or on any other diet for that matter because alcohol is a psychoactive drug that is capable of seriously affecting neurological pathways in your brain, alters your behaviors, and adversely impact your health and wellbeing.

The remainder of this article will look at what alcohol is, how it is metabolized in your body, how alcohol affects your whole body including your brain, sleep, hormones, micronutrient status, fertility, and many other functions. It also looks at claims of health benefits of alcohol consumption and answers the question of whether alcohol is okay on the carnivore diet.

What is alcohol and how it is metabolised

What is alcohol

Alcohol refers to any of a class of organic compounds that include a hydroxyl group, consisting of an oxygen atom and a hydrogen atom, bonded to a carbon atom. Alcohols are among the most common organic compounds and the two best-known alcohols are ethanol and methanol. Ethanol is the only alcohol that humans can ‘safely’ drink. [1]

Alcohol is made by fermenting fruits, grains, and vegetables using yeast.

Common alcohol drinks include:

  • Fermented beverages such as beer (made from fermented cereal grains), wine (made from fermented grape juice) and cider (made from fermented apple juice). They have alcohol contents ranging from 5% to 15%
  • Distilled beverages such as vodka, gin, whisky, rum, tequila, brandy and liqueurs. They are also made from fermenting plant matters but go through a distillation process to concentrate the alcohol content. Distilled beverages have alcohol contents ranging from around 40% to as high as 95%.

How alcohol enters your body

When you drink alcohol, a tiny small amount of alcohol is absorbed by the tongue and mucosal lining of the mouth, around 20% is absorbed by the stomach and around 80% is absorbed by the small intestine. [2, 3, 4]

How your body metabolises alcohol

After passing through the stomach and the small intestine, alcohol is sent to the liver where it meets an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase and is converted into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is actually more toxic than ethanol itself. However, the liver uses another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase to convert acetaldehyde into acetate which your body can easily handle. [5]

You may think, ok, the liver can convert alcohol into something that my body can cope with, so what’s the problem?

The problem here is though the liver can process alcohol, it takes time and can’t handle too much alcohol intake in a short period of time.

If you drink beverages with high alcohol content, in a short timeframe, and on an empty stomach, the liver can only process a small amount of alcohol in that timeframe. The rest will enter the bloodstream and eventually reach your brain and every other organ in your body except for the bones (too dense) and the fatty tissues (because ethanol is water-soluble, not fat-soluble).[6]

Genetics, age, gender, body size, and overall health can all affect how your body metabolizes alcohol and how it subsequently affects your health.[7, 8]

How alcohol leaves your body

Around 10% of the alcohol consumed is excreted via sweats, breaths, and urines. The remaining 90% is broken down by the liver using the two enzymes mentioned above.[9, 10] This is why drinking water, tea, coffee, or energy drinks, sleeping, or taking a cold shower will not speed up the elimination process and cure hangovers. Only time does.

An average person can eliminate 0.5 ounces (15 ml) of alcohol per hour, so it would take about 1 hour to eliminate the alcohol from a 12 ounce can of beer (355 ml).[11]

How alcohol affects your body

Alcohol is a powerful drug that can significantly affect neurological pathways in your brain, alters your behaviors, and adversely impact your health and wellbeing.

Interferring with your brain function

In the brain, alcohol affects neurotransmitters, the chemicals used to send messages to different parts of the body, and lowers inhibition, slows down processing of information, and inhibits thought processes. [12]

When inhibition is lowered due to alcohol, you start doing things that you would not generally do like becoming happier, relaxed, more adventurous, more talkative, and more confident.

Alcohol slows down the processing of information from the senses, i.e., your ability to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste things is adversely affected. This is why it becomes very dangerous to drive after drinking alcohol.

Alcohol also inhibits thought processes and makes it difficult for you to think clearly and make good decisions. That’s why a stupid idea can become a great idea under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol further affects other parts of the brain and consequently affects your emotion, memory, movement, coordination, and balance.

The more alcohol you drink, the more your brain function is impaired.

A few glasses will shorten your attention span, impair your judgment, and affect your fine motor skills. A few more and you will start having trouble understanding and remembering things, keeping balance, seeing things clearly, and sensing things. A lot more and you will experience confusion, sleepiness, slurred speech, uncoordinated movements. And if you keep going, you may become unconscious, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your life could be in danger and you could die.[13]

Messing up your sleep

Alcohol is definitely not a sleep aid as people often mistakenly believe.

According to Matthew Walker, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, alcohol can undermine the quality of your sleep in three different ways: [14]

  • Alcohol has short-term sedative effects. However, sedation is totally different from natural sleep. Sedation happens when we artificially and forcefully switch off the firing of brain cells in the cortex. Whereas, in natural sleep, there is a remarkable coordination of hundreds of thousands of brain cells that creates big powerful brainwaves of deep non-rem sleep.
  • Alcohol can fragment your sleep. During your sleep, alcohol can trigger and activate the fight or flight part of the nervous system. It can also increase the amount of alerting chemicals that are released by the brain. Both of these will cause you to wake up more frequently during the night and fragment your sleep.
  • Alcohol can block your REM sleep. REM or rapid eye movement sleep or your dream sleep is essential and important for memory, learning, creativity, and general emotional and mental health. While alcohol may make you fall asleep faster, it reduces this important REM sleep.

A Finish observational study finds that sleep quality decreases by 9.3%, 24%, and 39.2% respectively with low, moderate, and high alcohol intake.[15]

This is similar to the case of coffee. Coffee drinkers think it wakes you up, makes you more alert, more energetic, and even more creative. But coffee actually interferes with neurotransmitters in the brain and stops your brain from functioning as it should. For more information on the effect of coffee and caffeine on your brain, please read this post.

Reducing your testosterone and ability to build muscles

In the brain, alcohol stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight aspect of your nervous system. It accelerates the heart rate and pushes blood and its ethanol content more forcefully to skeletal muscle tissues and affects protein synthesis.[16]

It can also lower your testosterone while increasing your stress hormone, cortisol.

In a 2019 study on the effects of alcohol ingestion on recovery following resistance exercise, it is found that ‘levels of cortisol were increased, and levels of testosterone and rates of muscle protein synthesis were decreased, which indicates that long-term muscular adaptations could be impaired if alcohol consumption during recovery is consistent‘.[17]

Causing weight gain

Alcohol can cause weight gain because:

  • Alcohol is high in calories and has no nutritional value, i.e. it’s just empty calories accompanied by a toxic substance. Just two cans of regular beer have over 300 calories. A few drinks on a night out can easily add up to 400 to 500 calories in a short time
  • Energy from alcohol is in the form of simple sugar which your body will prioritise using first before burning fat reserve. If it is accompanied by a high carb meal, you will have virtually no chance of burning off the fat
  • Alcohol reduces your testosterone and muscle synthesis, both of which reduce your basal metabolic rate and can contribute to weight gain
  • Alcohol increases your stress hormone, cortisol, which triggers your fight and flight mode. Too much cortisol encourages fat storage in your body
  • Alcohol lowers inhibition and affect your judgement as mentioned above and you tend to make poor food choices under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol also causes overeating because it increases hunger signals.[18]

However, evidence linking alcohol consumption and obesity is inconclusive. In a comprehensive review of evidence to date, Traversy and Chaput (2015) conclude that:[19]

Alcohol consumption has probably contributed to the excess energy intake associated with weight gain in some individuals over the past years. However, the available evidence is conflicting and hampered by important limitations that preclude a strong conclusion on the effect of alcohol intake on obesity risk. Moderation in drinking is still an important recommendation, together with a healthy lifestyle not conducive to weight gain.

Though the overall evidence is conflicting, consuming empty calories and a toxic substance that can wreak havoc on your body can never be a good thing.

Impairing sexual performance

Alcohol may increase sexual behaviors because it lowers inhibition. But at the same time, alcohol decreases sexual performance because it affects your senses, movement, and coordination. People with alcohol dependence also are more likely to develop sexual dysfunction.

In a study on the prevalence of sexual dysfunction in male subjects with alcohol dependence, it is found that ‘72% had one or more sexual dysfunction, the most common being premature ejaculation, low sexual desire, and erectile dysfunction. The amount of alcohol consumed appeared to be the most significant predictor of developing sexual dysfunction.’[20]

Causing dehydration and loss of micronutrients

Alcohol inhibits the release of an anti-diuretic hormone called vasopressin and causes the kidneys to release more water. As a result, if you drink alcoholic beverages, you will pee more than if you had drunk the same amount of water. Excessive alcohol consumptions, therefore, can cause dehydration.[21]

Consequently, it has been found that, even at a moderate intake level, alcohol can result in a loss of micronutrients such as magnesium, B vitamins, zinc, and folate.[22, 23, 24, 25, 26]

Damaging your liver

As alcohol is broken down in the liver, a number of potentially dangerous by-products are generated, such as
acetaldehyde and highly reactive molecules called free radicals which can cause even more damages to the liver than alcohol itself. [27]

There is a range of progressive liver diseases related to alcohol consumption beginning from fatty liver, progressing to alcoholic hepatitis, and culminating in alcoholic cirrhosis, which is the most advanced and irreversible form of liver injury related to the consumption of alcohol.[28]

The three stages of alcoholic liver disease are:

  1. Alcoholic fatty liver. At this stage, fat accumulates in the liver parenchyma.
  2. Alcoholic hepatitis. Inflammation of liver cells takes place at this stage, and the outcome depends on the severity of the damage.
  3. Alcoholic cirrhosis. Liver damage at this stage is irreversible and leads to complications of cirrhosis and portal hypertension.

Affecting fertility

Alcohol use is associated with multiple reproductive risks, including having a child with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, increased risk of fetal loss, and decreased chance of live birth.[29]

In men, alcohol can affect heavy drinkers by reducing sperm quality (semen volume, sperm count, motility, and number of morphologically normal sperm) and decreasing testosterone levels. [30] A study suggests even modest alcohol consumption can have adverse effects on semen quality. [31]

Damaging your microbiome

Alcohol consumption, especially heavy drinking, can have a damaging impact on your microbiome including substantial changes in gut microbiota, increases in both small intestine and colon permeability to endotoxin, and promoting the growth of bad bacteria in the intestines.[32, 33, 34, 35]

Increasing the risk of pancreatitis

The pancreas is an organ in charge of producing and releasing digestive enzymes in the small intestine to help in the digestion process as well as releasing glucagon, insulin, gastrin, and amylin into the bloodstream to help the body use energy.[36]

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, leading to damage and dysfunction of the retroperitoneal organ.

Alcohol use is one of the most common causes of both acute and chronic pancreatitis due to the direct toxic effects of its metabolites such as acetaldehyde and fatty acid ethyl esters and the by-products of ethanol metabolism.[37, 38, 39]

Increasing the risk of various cancers

It is found that moderate to heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, stomach, larynx, colorectum, central nervous system, pancreas, breast, and prostate.[40, 41]

Commercial alcohol can contain many harmful substances

Alcohol is made from fermenting fruits, grains, and vegetables, therefore, potentially contains plant residues such as yeast, pesticides, herbicides, and mycotoxins. [42, 43] Furthermore, commercial alcohol production today is no longer simply a fermentation of plant matters with yeast. Many additives are used in making alcoholic beverages to make them cost-effective.

Ethanol and water are the main components of most alcoholic beverages, though, in some very sweet liqueurs, the sugar content can be higher than the ethanol content. In addition, alcoholic beverages can contain methanol and other alcohols, yeast, coloring substances, tannic and polyphenolic substances, histamines, mycotoxins, arsenic compounds, pesticides, fungicides, adulterants.[44]

Other health effects of excessive alcohol consumption

Other health effects of excessive alcohol consumption include injuries, violence, poisonings, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and poor pregnancy outcomes.[45]

Alcohol is a massive health and social problem worldwide

Alcohol is a massive health and social problem everywhere.

Below is some global statistics on worldwide alcohol use:[46]

  • Worldwide, 3 million deaths every year result from harmful use of alcohol, this represents 5.3 % of all deaths
  • The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions
  • Overall, 5.1 % of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol, as measured in disability-adjusted life years
  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. In the age group 20–39 years approximately 13.5 % of the total deaths are alcohol-attributable
  • There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioural disorders, other noncommunicable conditions as well as injuries
  • The latest causal relationships have been established between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.

And below is some statistics on America’s alcohol use: [47]

  • Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 95,000 deaths in the United States each year, including 1 in 10 total deaths among working-age adults
  • In 2010, excessive alcohol use cost the US economy $249 billion, or $2.05 a drink
  • About 40% of these costs were paid by federal, state, and local governments
  • Binge drinking is responsible for almost half the deaths and three-quarters of the costs due to excessive alcohol use
  • CDC estimates that 37 million US adults (or 1 in 6) binge drink about once a week, consuming an average of 7 drinks per binge. As a result, US adults consume about 17 billion binge drinks annually, or about 470 binge drinks per binge drinker.

Evidence on the benefits of alcohol consumption

There is evidence of health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption such as brain, gut, and heart health, psychological benefits such as lowering stress and depression and increasing pleasant and happy feelings, plus some other health benefits.[48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54]

However, in a 2018 global study titled ‘No level of alcohol consumption improves health’ examining the impact of alcohol on injury and disease and published in The Lancet, the authors conclude that:

The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer. [55]

Please note, as the vast majority of studies on the implication of dietary choices on human health, this is also just another epidemiological study.

Should you drink alcohol on the carnivore diet?

From the evidence presented above, the answer is clear, you should not drink alcohol on the carnivore diet or on any other diet because of the many health risks associated with alcohol consumption including:

  • Interfering with your brain function
  • Messing up your sleep
  • Reducing your testosterone and ability to build muscles
  • Causing weight gain
  • Impairing sexual performance
  • Causing dehydration and loss of micronutrients
  • Damaging your liver
  • Increasing blood pressure
  • Affecting fertility
  • Damaging your digestive system
  • Increasing the risk of pancreatitis
  • Increasing the risk of various cancers
  • Commercial alcohol can contain many harmful substances
  • Causing massive health and social problems worldwide.

While some evidence of the health risks and benefits of alcohol consumption is based on epidemiological studies which can only show associations and can’t prove causation, what we can certainly agree on is alcohol is a toxic substance that has no nutritional value. This fact alone should answer the question of whether alcohol is okay on the carnivore diet.

How to quit alcohol

I hope I’ve done a good job of convincing you to quit alcohol in this post.

However, I don’t drink so I don’t have any experience in this area but here are some tips I find that can be useful for those of you wanting to quit:[56]

  1. Taking stock of your relationship with alcohol. Write down things like when you started drinking, how much you’ve been drinking, how your alcohol consumption changed over time, what damages alcohol might have done to you including your health, your family, your relationship, your career etc.
  2. Your motivation to quit alcohol and what benefits you will get from quitting it
  3. Work out a plan to quit alcohol:
    • Decide if you want to quit in one go or gradually over a period of time. Write down the pros and cons of each approach. If you have tried to quit in the past, which approach did you use and what sort of success or failure did you get.
    • Set specific goals, for example, limiting your drink to one glass a day only, or once a week, or to quit completely in in one month, three months or one year. Choose a realistic goal rather than a desirable but unachievable goal
    • List actions you need to take to achieve your goals, for example, getting rid of all alcohol in the house, telling your family and friends that you want to quit and asking them to respect and support your decision, avoiding social settings where you may be tempted to drink again
    • List all things that you can do ward off alcohol cravings
    • Enlist support from your family, friends, colleagues, healthcare providers, community, government support network etc.
    • Find a new hobbie or rediscover the old ones to keep you occupied and keep your mind off alcohol
    • Prepare for adhoc situations, e.g. being tempted by alcoholic friends, under peer-pressure etc.
    • Prepare for small or major stumbles. It’s never going to be all smooth sailing, these are all part of the journey, and you just need to get up and start again. Whatever you do, don’t give up, it is hard but, looking at the potential health risks of alcohol, it is also so worth doing
  4. Implement your plan and do things that you’ve worked out above
  5. Keep track of your progress. Keep a journal or print out a habit tracker and track your progress. It is very encouraging to see sober days ticked off as you go
  6. Reward yourself for your achievement as you go along, no matter how small. Perhaps use the money saved from not buying alcohol to go for a holiday somewhere, or to buy something that you’ve always wanted to buy, or simply a nice dinner at home with a couple of Wagyu steaks.

If you can’t quit alcohol

For whatever reason, if you can’t or still don’t want to quit alcohol for now, buy the best alcohol you can afford: organic wines, low caloric alcohol drinks, and distilled beverages from reputable companies.

But hopefully, one day, when you are ready, you will attempt at quitting it again!

DisclaimerThe information in this post is for reference purposes only and not intended to constitute or replace professional medical advice. Please consult a qualified medical professional before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle.