I don’t drink that much: the true impact of alcohol on your hormones

Have you ever considered whether your alcohol intake may be interfering with your sex hormone balance?

A link between your after-work drink(s) and challenging symptoms such PMS and hot flushes may seem like a stretch… until you learn that there is one organ that is responsible for metabolising both alcohol and our sex hormones, such as estrogen. This organ is our precious liver.

So how much is too much? With all of the conflicting messages we hear about alcohol, it’s no wonder people are unsure whether a glass of wine with dinner will help or hinder their health. While we have guidelines that are designed to minimise the risk of harm from alcohol for the general population, we are all individuals, and our bio-individuality as well as our lifestyle choices can influence how well our body is able to deal with the alcohol we drink.

Firstly, what is alcohol?

Alcohol is a substance that is so harmful to our body that if it were to accumulate it would kill you. I don’t say that to scare you, it’s simply a fact – the human body cannot eliminate alcohol itself. Because of this, no matter what else the liver also has to process and excrete, alcohol is always given the number one priority. It must convert the alcohol into acetaldehyde, the latter of which can be excreted. This is true for whatever form the alcohol comes in – beer, wine and spirits. A standard drink is considered to be anything containing 10 grams of alcohol. In New Zealand and Australia, examples of such include a 330ml bottle of beer, one 30ml nip of spirits, 170ml of champagne, and a measly 100ml of wine, which is about four sips. In other words it is so easy to knowingly or unknowingly overconsume alcohol.

How alcohol can send your hormones out of balance

Once a unit of estrogen has done its job in the body, it is transported to the liver where it has to be detoxified (changed) so that it can be excreted. There are two main phases to this detoxification process. However, over time, the liver detoxification pathways – particularly the phase two pathways – can become congested, just like traffic on a motorway. Where once substances flew through the liver at 100 kilometres per hour, they now crawl through at 20 kilometres per hour, for example.

When this process becomes terribly overloaded from years of too much alcohol, refined sugars, trans fats, or the by-products of bowel congestion (as can occur with frequent constipation), the estrogen will undergo its first stage of change (phase one), but there is no room on the second stage highway (phase two). As a result, this slightly changed form of estrogen has a tendency to be recycled back into the bloodstream.

Your body is then faced with both the new estrogen it continues to make from your ovaries (if you are still menstruating), your adrenal glands and body fat cells, as well as the recycled form. This can lead to excess estrogen which can contribute to challenging symptoms like PMS/PMT, heavy, painful periods, pre-menstrual migraines and headaches, bloating and fluid retention.

Of greater concern is that the recycled form of estrogen has been found to be much higher in some women with estrogen-sensitive breast cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has also reported that there is strong evidence that regular alcohol consumption increases risk of breast cancer, and that even one drink per day, every day, can increase our risk. Please be so mindful of how much you consume.

Where to from here?

You don’t need me to tell you whether you need to drink less alcohol – you know in your heart if this is true for you. Just be honest with yourself about how much you drink and whether your alcohol intake may be affecting your health – hormonal balance included!

The current guidelines established by a number of reputable health groups suggest a maximum of two standard drinks on any day. Most health professionals also recommend at least two alcohol-free days per week. In saying this, remember that increased risk of breast cancer has still been observed with lower amounts. Even if you are currently meeting these guidelines, I can’t encourage you enough to consider if you are consuming too much alcohol for YOUR body.

So many women tell me they know they need to drink less alcohol, but they just can’t seem to do it. They say they lack the motivation or willpower. But it’s not willpower that is needed – it’s an understanding of why we do what we do, despite knowing what we know; an understanding of what is driving our behaviour. Because when we understand the interplay between our beliefs and emotions, our biochemistry and our nutritional status, we get an appreciation for the absolute miracle the human body is – who we are – and making choices that support our health can become effortless from this knowing.

Women's Wellness Wisdom

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