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You don’t need alcohol to relax and unwind, but the practice is ritualized in our culture as one that helps you “let your hair down.” However, as we all know, “too much of a good thing can be, well, too much,” Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., CNS, notes. “The most healthy way to drink is in moderation and alongside plenty of water to counterbalance the diuretic effects,” explains nutritionist Serena Poon.
Hardly groundbreaking news, but what exactly does drinking in moderation look like? “This is a tricky question because the line between healthy drinking and unhealthy drinking is really more about total consumption than individual drinks,” explains Poon. Gittleman advises, “one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men as moderate alcohol consumption.”
Drinking in moderation can also help you avoid some of alcohol’s negative physical effects. “If you want to avoid other negative effects like hangovers, weight gain, and sleep disruption, stick to beverages that are lower in sugar, contain clear alcohol, and are lower in calories. Drinking sugary beverages can disrupt your blood sugar and cause problems with sleep and metabolism.1 Just the alcohol can send your blood sugar levels for a spin on its own, and the combination can create hypoglycemia,” which can contribute to that shaky feeling you might experience after a night of drinking.2
You also want to regulate when you drink. Poon emphasizes, “The digestion of alcohol can really affect your sleep, and quality sleep is one of the most important factors in overall health. Researchers have found that it’s best to drink at least four hours before bedtime3 to avoid disrupting sleep.”
Finally, some people should avoid drinking altogether. Poon makes the following recommendation. “Communities who would want to abstain completely would include pregnant women, people who struggle with alcohol abuse, people with certain conditions such as liver disease, and people who are on certain medications,” Gittleman adds that because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant,4 it’s important to check if any medications you’re taking are contraindicated. “This includes over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen,” she says, “which can interact with alcohol to cause stomach bleeding and liver damage when taken in large amounts.
Other populations might want to avoid alcohol to stay committed to a healthy lifestyle. “In my opinion,” says Poon, “abstaining from alcohol is helpful for people who are trying to lose weight and people who are training for an endurance event5 or preparing for a big presentation at work.6 Also, if you are having troubles with your digestion7 or with anxiety,8 you may want to consider abstaining from alcohol to see if it helps.”
If, however, you fall outside these populations and choose to imbibe, some alcohol is healthier than others. As a rule of thumb, Poon suggests, “the simpler, the better. When choosing alcoholic beverages, avoid syrups, sweet mixers, sodas, and tonic water. Instead, stick to one or two ingredient drinks, high-quality clear alcohols, and hydrating mixers such as water and soda water.” In addition, Gittleman suggests adding herbal garnishes to drinks, like mint, basil, ginger, or rosemary, for flavor.