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Everything You Need to Know About Alcohol and Inflammation, According to Experts

When you’re sipping on a glass of wine at dinner or ordering a round of cocktails for your friends at a bar, the last thing you want to think about it is what that alcohol‘s doing to your body. You already know you might be heading for a hangover tomorrow morning — might as well enjoy the night before you get there, right? And while we’re not here to ruin anyone’s buzz, there is another physical side effect of alcohol we should all be aware of: inflammation.

Far from just a trendy buzzword in the wellness community, inflammation is actually your immune system’s response to a stressor, whether that’s a pathogen, an injury, actual mental stress, or just something that “does not sit well with our body, such as alcohol,” registered dietitian Emily Maus of Live Well Dietitian tells SheKnows. Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing; if you’re sick, inflammation is a sign that your body is working to get rid of the virus or bacteria. But if you’re experiencing chronic inflammation as a result of lifestyle factors, “it can mean the body is living in hyper-drive,” Maus explains. That can cause a wide range of physical and mental difficulties, from acne and painful periods to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

So what does that have to do with inflammation? Well, most of us know that alcohol — as nice as it feels going down! — isn’t great for our physical or mental health. With sober curiosity and dry January trends on the rise, it’s natural to wonder if alcohol is connected to this harmful kind of inflammation — and the answer is yes.

Does alcohol cause inflammation?

Alcohol does lead to inflammation in the body. How does it happen? As our body works to process alcohol, it creates “byproducts that can irritate and damage our gut and other organs, like the liver,” Romane Guerot, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at Foodvisor, tells SheKnows. “This irritation triggers an inflammatory response, similar to how your body fights off a scrape or a cold.”

Your body deals with alcohol via the liver, which is the organ responsible for filtering and ridding the body of poisonous substances like drugs and alcohol. You probably know that frequent consumption of alcohol can lead to liver damage, and that connection plays a part in inflammation as well. Chronic alcohol use impairs your body’s anti-inflammation defenses, which are not only connected to your liver but also your gut and brain, scientists say. In other words, Maus explains, “the more frequently alcohol is consumed, the more sluggish the liver becomes, which can decrease production of anti-inflammatory cells.”

That inflammation can make itself known in a few different ways. Post-drinking inflammation might make you feel achy and sore, like after a big workout, Guerot explains. You might feel joint stiffness, fatigue, or an upset stomach as well. Sounds like a hangover to us.

What kinds of alcohol are worse for inflammation?

We’ll be the bearers of bad news here: unfortunately, all types of alcohol can cause an inflammatory response. In fact, “the type of alcohol doesn’t significantly impact how much inflammation it causes,” Guerot says. “It’s more about the amount you consume.” In other words, the more alcohol you drink and the more frequently you drink it, the more inflammation you’ll experience.

But if you’ve noticed that your hangovers are worse after a night of sugary cocktails, well, there’s a reason for that. Sugary alcoholic drinks may result in more inflammation, as sugar on its own is a known inflammatory product. You’re basically combining two inflammatory ingredients, alcohol and sugar, so “limiting sugar heavy alcoholic beverages can be a better choice” for those looking to reduce inflammation, Maus explains.

Can I drink alcohol without experiencing inflammation?

Any amount of alcohol can cause inflammation, so if you really want to avoid inflammation and its unpleasant side effects, the solution is to not drink at all. But if you do want to imbibe every once in a while, moderation is key, Maus says — both in terms of how much you’re drinking and how frequently. It’s also best to drink after a meal. “Drinking on an empty stomach can spike blood sugar, which could also increase inflammation and reduce insulin response,” per a 2019 study, Maus noted.

Of course, treating inflammation isn’t just about alcohol. What you eat also plays a huge role, which is where an anti-inflammatory diet can help. Exercising regularly is a key component as well.

When it comes to alcohol, we know it’s not exactly easy to stop on a dime, even if you’re feeling those sluggish, uncomfortable symptoms of inflammation. Pay attention to how your body feels when you’re drinking and look for ways you can enjoy your favorite activities without leaning on alcohol. Try swapping out your cocktail for an anti-inflammatory mocktail every once in a while (Maus recommends using ingredients like tart cherry, berries, or green tea) and see the changes it makes to your body and mind.

Before you go, check out our favorite bedtime products to help you catch some shut-eye:


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