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Health Protocols

Alcohol: Reducing the Risks


Excessive alcohol intake is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States (O'Keefe 2014; Liang 2014). Alcohol abuse is linked to numerous health risks including heart, liver, and pancreatic diseases; pneumonia; neurological and cognitive dysfunction; cancer; psychological disorders; and injuries (Shield 2013; Kruman 2014; Federico 2015; Traphagen 2015).

This protocol is not about reducing the detrimental effects of chronic, excessive alcohol consumption. No nutritional intervention can eliminate the health hazards associated with long-term alcohol overconsumption.

Rather, this protocol is intended to provide strategies that may minimize some of the ill effects (ie, hangover) arising from isolated instances of alcohol overindulgence. Readers who wish to reduce their risk of developing chronic health problems due to excessive alcohol consumption should adhere to the guidelines on low-risk drinking published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which are as follows (NIH 2016).

low risk drinking limits

Hangover symptoms typically result from binge drinking, the most common type of alcohol abuse in the United States. Binge drinking is when a man consumes five or more drinks, or a woman consumes four or more drinks, within roughly two hours (CDC 2015). The short-term effects of binge drinking range from mild hangover symptoms to life-threatening central nervous system dysfunction (NIH 2015), electrolyte imbalance, and death (Allison 2014; Erath 1996). The experience of frequent hangovers increases the likelihood of being diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder in the future (Piasecki 2005; Piasecki 2010).

A hangover is characterized by symptoms such as headache, nausea, fatigue, poor concentration, mood disturbance, and increased sensitivity to light and noise (Mayo Clinic 2014). Oxidative tissue injury and inflammation are thought to be important contributors to the short-term consequences of alcohol intoxication (Penning 2010; Verster 2008; Min 2010) as well as the long-term health problems related to chronic alcohol abuse (Gonzalez-Reimers 2014; Kawaratani 2013; Ceron 2014).

The good news is that several integrative interventions may facilitate alcohol detoxification and help support the healthy functioning of physiological systems disturbed by short-term alcohol consumption.

Supplementing with nutrients depleted through alcohol use such as B vitamins (Said 2011), selenium (Ojeda 2015), and vitamin E (Kaur 2010) is one approach to mitigating hangover symptoms. Other natural agents, including clove bud extract (Issac 2015), N-acetylcysteine (Leung 2015), grape seed extract (Bak 2016), and resveratrol (Chen 2016) may exert beneficial effects by reducing oxidative and inflammatory tissue damage. Additional interventions that may help prevent hangover symptoms include herbal therapies such as milk thistle (Vargas-Mendoza 2014) as well as nutrients that facilitate alcohol metabolism such as glutathione (Lee 2009). A unique compound extracted from soybeans called Polyenylphosphatidylcholine (PPC) may help protect the liver from damage (Gundermann 2011). Finally, supplemental probiotics may help reverse the negative impact of alcohol on the intestinal microbiome (Engen 2015; Bhattacharyya 2014) and offset some of the toxic effects of alcohol in gastrointestinal cells.

In this protocol, you will learn how the body metabolizes alcohol and how excessive drinking can impair the systems responsible for doing so, leading to toxicity. You will learn about the ways that alcohol consumption leads to hangover symptoms, and how lifestyle choices and targeted integrative interventions may help minimize hangover risk. You will also read about the risk to liver health posed by the common mistake of taking the over-the-counter pain medication acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) shortly after alcohol consumption, and how drinking to excess can exacerbate some of the health risks associated with diabetes.