Alcohol is the most commonly used recreational drug in the world, and it’s also the most misused. Alcohol addiction is a progressive disease that can affect multiple areas of your life, including your health, relationships, and financial stability. Long-term alcohol use can lead to serious health concerns like liver disease, cancer, and other issues. However, alcohol can cause health problems, even after a shorter period of misuse. Alcohol misuse can affect your weight in several ways. If left unaddressed, it affects your weight and nutrition and can lead to severe problems. Learn more about alcohol and its influence on your weight.
Alcohol is associated with changes in your weight, but the reasons why can be complex. Alcohol can disrupt a number of systems and functions in your body that can, directly and indirectly, influence your weight. One of the most obvious ways alcohol can change your weight is through increased calorie intake. People that drink beer excessively, which is high in calories, may gain weight. Alcohol may also encourage people to eat greasy, fatty foods in response to fluctuating blood sugar levels.
If you’ve tried any popular diets of the last several years, you may have seen that many nutritionists encourage you to avoid alcohol if you’re trying to lose weight. Even if you drink relatively low-calorie options, alcohol can also prevent weight loss. Alcohol can’t be stored by the body, so when you drink, your body gets to work to get rid of it as soon as possible.
Alcohol has calories in it, so your body burns it as a fuel source quickly and prioritizes it over other food sources it can store. That means, when you drink an alcoholic beverage, your body uses, processes, and eliminates it before using any fats or sugars you consume in the drink or alongside it. Everything else is stored as fat.
College students and young adults that experienced the dreaded “freshman 15” may not be surprised to learn that drinking can contribute to weight gain. However, alcohol can also make you lose weight in an unhealthy way.
It’s unlikely for you to lose weight through moderate or occasional drinking. But if you drink to the point of developing an alcohol use disorder, you may start to see some unhealthy weight loss. In 2019, 14.1 million people had an alcohol use disorder. When many of them enter treatment, their doctors find that they’re actually malnourished. There are some obvious reasons for this and some less obvious ones.
Alcohol addiction is a disease that affects the reward center of the brain by causing your brain to treat drinking alcohol as an important, rewarding, life-sustaining activity. Your reward center is intended to encourage you to seek healthy things like nutrition, companionship, and comfortable shelter. It does this by interacting with rewarding chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. However, alcohol and other drugs can manipulate those chemicals in your brain for an intensely rewarding response. Addiction can cause you to prioritize alcohol over other needs like nutrition, personal hygiene, and relationships.
For that reason, getting a healthy diet may fall by the wayside when you’re managing an addiction. However, alcohol can also interfere with your digestion and metabolism in a way that affects your nutrition. Alcohol can inhibit nutrient absorption in your digestive system. That means you may not be getting all the nutrients from the food you eat. People with alcohol use problems are often deficient in vitamins like vitamin A, C, D, E, K, and B vitamins. Likewise, alcoholism can lead to mineral deficiencies as well.
Alcoholism can also lead to hypoglycemia, especially when you eat fewer carbs and drink alcohol to the point where it acts as your primary food source. But it’s less efficient as a food source and may leave you feeling more fatigued than the same amount of carbs. Losing weight with alcohol can be damaging to your body and lead to serious problems like liver disease, brain damage, and pancreatitis.
Sleep is also tied to your weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a third of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of sleep that they need. Poor sleep can lead to several health concerns, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. A lack of sleep can contribute to lower energy levels, which can encourage a sedentary lifestyle. Sleep is also important for hormone regulation. A lack of sleep may disrupt the hormones that are tied to appetite, which can increase your calorie intake and cause you to favor high-calorie foods. A lack of energy from sleeplessness may cause you to crave foods to compensate for energy levels, like foods that are high in sugar.
But what does this have to do with alcohol? Isn’t alcohol a depressant that makes you sleepy?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which increases the effectiveness of a natural chemical messenger that’s tied to sleep called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). While alcohol may make you feel sedated, it can actually limit your sleep and sleep quality. People that drink alcohol may feel like they fall asleep faster, but it can also disrupt your sleep cycle, causing you to wake up more often through the night. Depending on how much you drink, alcohol could also block rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is important for a healthy sleep cycle. The result is a less restful night’s sleep.
Alcohol may be even more disruptive to sleep if you become chemically dependent. Chemical dependence on alcohol is associated with withdrawal symptoms that often cause a rebounding effect. Rebounding refers to withdrawal effects that are the opposite of the drug’s effects. In this case, it refers to an anxious, stimulating feeling. Someone that’s dependent on alcohol may experience insomnia if they don’t drink enough. Severe alcoholism may cause you to experience early morning withdrawal symptoms as the effects of alcohol wear off overnight. This could cause you to wake up early in the morning, craving alcohol.
Alcoholism is known to affect your liver. Chronic alcohol use problems can lead to alcoholic liver disease, which damages your liver over time. Your liver’s job is to filter toxins out of your blood to protect your brain and other organs. However, it also plays a role in the processing of other things like fats, carbs, and proteins. If your liver is damaged and its functions are inhibited, it may not be able to do its job efficiently. This may change the way your body processes and stores fats and sugars in a way that leads to fluctuations in weight. Advanced liver disease like alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis can cause you to retain fluids, causes swollen ankles and a distended abdomen.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
CDC. (2018, February 22). Sleep and Sleep Disorders. from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/index.html
Harvard T.H. Chan. (2021, January 27). Sleep. from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/
NIAAA. (n.d.). ALCOHOL ALERT. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020, February 18). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics