Ever wondered how many calories you really consume every time you drink? Or how alcohol actually affects your nightly zzz’s? (Spoiler alert: it’s not the magic sleep aid you think.) We got to the bottom of boozing’s biggest urban legends. And don’t worry — it’s not all bad news. Drinking moderately comes with a wealth of health benefits, says Sam Zakhari, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) and former Director of the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Here’s what you’ll want to know about how alcohol affects you when you’re drinking in moderation — and what happens when you wake up knowing that last whiskey was definitely unnecessary.
6 Things to Know About Drinking Alcohol Before Going Out Tonight
1. You’re drinking more than you think.
A study from Cancer Research UK suggests that the average British adult might drink around 3,740 calories of beer or 3,750 calories of alcohol while attending holiday parties this year. Even though 27 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds and 33 percent of the 25- to 34-year-olds surveyed said they had been known to skip a meal to “make room” for drinking (note: not a good idea!), they still ended up imbibing so much that it would have taken seven hours of jogging to work off all that seasonal cheer.
“In terms of sheer calorie count, beer has the most — about 150 calories.”
So how much should you be drinking, anyway? “Defined by the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two for men,” says Dr. Zakhari. Reality check: That means 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of spirits, and 5 ounces of wine. Go forth and enjoy (moderately).
2. You could be counting carbs all wrong.
If you’re trying to lose weight or get in shape, which type of alcohol should you order? You’ve got options, says David Sack, M.D., CEO of Promises Treatment Centers. “In terms of sheer calorie count, beer has the most — about 150 calories. However, if you opt for light beer, that’s about 100 calories, which is about the same as a serving of wine or liquor,” says Dr. Sack. Beer usually has around 10 to 20 grams of carbs (although strong, sweet beers have more), while lagers and stouts have the least (around 6 to 11 grams), according to Dr. Sack. If wine is your thing, a glass of red only has two grams of carbohydrates, and keep in mind that drier wines will have fewer carbs and sugar.
Hard liquor actually comes in at zero sugar and carbs. That might seem like a win, but it all depends how you drink it. “Just watch the mixers,” recommends Dr. Sack. “There’s a big difference between straight vodka and the vodka in a Cosmo,” which is paired with sugary cranberry juice.
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3. Your brain might benefit from booze.
Let’s be honest: Going overboard on drinks can make your brain feel foggy at best, or short a few brain cells at worst. But, keep your bar tab under control and you might actually be doing your brain a favor. “Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol throughout your life can actually ward off cognitive decline and improve brain function,” says Dr. Zakhari. Research in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that of the 489 women studied, moderate drinkers scored higher than abstinent women or heavy drinkers on a cognitive functioning test.
“Alcohol may help you sleep now, but you’ll likely pay for it by being wakeful later.”
“Decline in cognition is usually due to the brain not receiving enough oxygen,” explains Dr. Zakhari. “Alcohol makes the blood more fluid, which helps the blood supply to the brain remain constant.” Does the type of alcohol matter? Nope! According to Dr. Zakhari, it’s about the actual alcohol, not the form it comes in.
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4. Imbibing could help prevent a stroke.
Every year, approximately 800,000 people in the U.S. suffer from a stroke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But your nightly drink might make you less likely to someday become a part of that statistic. Alcohol’s blood thinning effect can help ward off strokes. Dr. Zakhari explains that there are two types of strokes: ischemic, when a blood clot stops blood from going to parts of the brain, and hemorrhagic, when the brain bleeds too much. Around 80 percent of strokes are ischemic, which is where alcohol comes in. “Moderate drinking helps reduce the clotting of blood, so there’s less of a possibility of a blood vessel being clogged,” says Dr. Zakhari. “And then even if a clot does happen, alcohol can help with fibrinolysis, which is the dissolution of the clot.”
5. Alcohol might not actually be helping you sleep better.
If you imbibe before bed, you might help yourself nod off, but you’re not doing your body any favors in the long run. “Alcohol may help you sleep now, but you’ll likely pay for it by being wakeful later,” says Dr. Sack. Boozy beverages can disrupt what’s known as sleep homeostasis, the process that helps your body regulate sleep, according to research in the journal Alcohol. While alcohol is a somnogen, or sleep inducer, it can also disrupt you in the middle of the night. “Then there’s the fact that relying on alcohol to help you sleep can lead to problems down the road. What tends to happen is that alcohol works less and less well as a sleep aid over time, so we respond by increasing the amount we are drinking,” says Dr. Sack.
6. Even one episode of binge drinking can harm your health.
Here’s an excellent reason to keep yourself in check: Overdoing it even once — yup, you read that right — can affect your health in freaky ways, says research in PLOS ONE. Binge drinking is “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08,” according to the NIAAA. That’s about four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men within about two hours.
In the study, researchers discovered binge drinkers had bacterial DNA in their bloodstreams, which was a sign bacteria had leaked out from the gut. They also discovered elevated endotoxin presence in the blood, which meant toxins had been released from cells after cell walls were damaged by booze. The consequences: These toxins could lead to fever, tissue destruction and inflammation, which is tied to a host of health problems from cancer to depression. It sounds scary, but avoiding these issues is pretty simple if you follow Dr. Zakhari’s alcohol mantra: “It’s all about moderation.”
Originally posted December 2014. Updated December 2015.