Alcohol has become a staple in most of the western world and is often considered harmless when had in moderation. In fact, some media even claim that modest drinking can actually have benefits, and varieties like red wine may be the secret to a long life. These are pretty heavy claims which don’t cover the full story. Although there may be some benefits to alcohol, the question remains, overall, do the benefits outweigh the risks?
We’re here to tell you! What do our cells have to say about alcohol intake? More specifically, how does alcohol affect our cell’s epigenetics?
Epigenetics refers to a layer of molecules over our genome, regulating gene expression (level of protein output). Essentially, our epigenetics are responsible for increasing, decreasing, or even deactivating a gene’s expression.
Using chemical groups such as methyl (CH3), our epigenetics modify gene expression without tampering with the genetic code. While our genetics are constant from birth, our epigenetics are flexible and dynamic, heavily influenced by our environment and lifestyle. (Read more about the contrast between genetics and epigenetics here.)
As we age, DNA gets damaged and subsequently repaired. But DNA repairs are rarely perfect and epigenetic information can become lost or jumbled. Post-repair, genes often have different DNA methylation patterns; this can have messy consequences. Incorrect methylation patterns and suboptimal epigenetic expressions can accelerate aging.
When epigenetic patterns have fewer methyl groups, it’s called hypomethylation. When there are excess methyl groups, it’s referred to as hypermethylation. Overall hypomethylation in our cell’s epigenome is heavily associated with aging. (Read more about using epigenetics to measure aging here.)
Alcohol intake is one of the many lifestyle choices that can disrupt our epigenetic patterns. Alcohol can directly reduce the presence of important nutrients that maintain epigenetic stability. (Read more about epinutrients here!) Without these nutrients, our cells have difficulty maintaining proper methylation, leading to overall hypomethylation.1
On top of that, alcohol also gives rise to free radicals which wreak havoc on our DNA and promotes unwanted changes to our epigenetics.1 (Read more about using antioxidants to fight free radicals here!)
Overall hypomethylation and unwanted changes in our epigenetics are directly linked to aging and age-related diseases. In fact, a 2019 study found that alcohol intake significantly accelerated aging in individuals with chronic alcohol usage.2
Science clearly states that alcohol is poison. Your liver has to work overtime to metabolize it. Too much alcohol in too little time cannot be processed fast enough and leads to alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol is certainly a physically addictive substance. Alcohol influences your brain chemistry, and actively disrupts the function of your dopamine receptors. Dopamine is considered the “feel good” hormone. Without functioning receptors, it becomes more and more difficult to achieve that intoxicating feeling. This makes it tougher to “feel good,” and can make you physically dependent on alcohol to de-stress and achieve that high.4
Alcohol can also manipulate your epigenetics. Binge drinking or heavy drinking has a lasting effect on your epigenetic pattern and can stimulate physical cravings for the substance. Specific genes can be completely silenced, or turned off, making you more prone to addiction.5
There is a give-and-take to drinking in moderation, which is why it cannot be declared “good” or “bad” for the general population. Everyone’s health profile and concerns are different and heavy personalization is needed for a correct evaluation. Here are some of the benefits of low-to-moderate alcohol consumption rather than no alcohol consumption.
Here are the drawbacks associated with low to moderate alcohol consumption rather than no alcohol consumption.
Different alcohols have different health effects. Some carry more benefits while others effectively carry none. For example, low to moderate consumption of red wine is known to carry antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on cardiovascular tissue.7 That being said, several foods have similar properties and fewer associated risks. A blueberry also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and unless you get really creative, it can’t kill you.
Moderate alcohol usage is loosely defined as a drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. But different beverages contain different amounts of alcohol, which is why it’s important to clearly define what we mean by “one drink.”
Drinking within these guidelines may still increase the overall risk of death from various causes, such as several types of cancer and some forms of cardiovascular disease.
Making a call between cutting out alcohol or keeping a low to moderate intake depends on your personal profile. Generally, alcohol is an addictive substance that can be fatal in significant quantities and is better to avoid.
To check whether your alcohol intake is straining your body, you can look to your epigenetics. That’s why, in FOXO’s upcoming personalized Longevity Report, we not only analyze the impact of alcohol on your epigenetics but also assign you an Indulgence score to let you know whether you need to cut down on your intake!