Of all the lifestyle changes I suggest to my clients, which do you think is often met with the most resistance? Changing their eating habits? No. Exercising more? No. Giving up coffee? Okay, that one is close, but no. It’s when I suggest women set aside their evening alcoholic drink that I often get an incredulous look. I’ve even had women tell me they need a glass of wine or a cocktail to wind down. “I’ll never get to sleep without it,” they say. “Research shows that a glass of red wine a day is good for you,” they argue.
I do believe in moderation, and typically I think it’s fine to have an alcoholic drink occasionally. And it’s true that some research has indicated that the resveratrol and antioxidants in red wine may have a positive impact on heart health when consumed in moderation. But there are other ways to boost heart health, and for some people, alcohol could do more harm than good – even in small doses.
Adrenal dysfunction, often known as adrenal fatigue in the functional medicine community, impacts health in so many ways. When your adrenals aren’t functioning properly, your hormones become imbalanced and your body can’t function as it should. I’ve written a lot about adrenal imbalance, it’s causes and what you can do about it, but I’ve never specifically addressed the issue of alcohol – and its past time I did!
Anytime a woman comes to me with signs of adrenal dysfunction, I gently suggest that she take a break from alcohol as she heals. In my decades of working with women, I’ve seen firsthand how this one step can speed healing and allow women to find balance. It doesn’t have to be forever – once the adrenals are healed and functioning properly, enjoying a glass of wine now and then is fine.
Let’s take a look at how alcohol and adrenal fatigue are connected – and why it’s a good idea to take a break to heal your adrenal glands.
Understanding Adrenal Gland Function
The adrenals are small triangular glands that sit on top of each kidney. Don’t let their small size fool you – these glands have a vitally important function. They produce several different hormones – some of which are vital to survival.
While the adrenals produce hormones that impact a variety of functions in the body, the main job of these little glands is to help you respond to stress. That means producing hormones like adrenaline, which helps your body get ready to act in stressful situations, and cortisol.
Cortisol has many jobs. These include helping to convert food to energy, regulating blood pressure and cardiovascular functioning, reducing inflammation and managing the immune response in the body. It also sets the “flight, fight or freeze” response into motion, helping your body respond to threats. The problem is that response is the same whether there’s a true threat to survival or not and when it’s activated, other functions slow or stop.
That’s fine in temporary situations, but when stressors are constantly triggering this response, your adrenals continue to produce cortisol instead of other hormones, and imbalances occur. With these imbalances come the uncomfortable symptoms of adrenal dysfunction, including fatigue, moodiness, weight gain, and poor sleep.
Does Consuming Alcohol Cause Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue rarely has just one cause. There are so many things that impact hormonal balance in your body, and all these combined can lead your adrenals to a dysfunctional place. So, while I can’t say alcohol is the reason for the development of adrenal fatigue, I am confident in my belief that it certainly isn’t helping the situation.
Anything that has an impact on cortisol production will contribute to adrenal issues. Alcohol can cause imbalanced cortisol levels in both directions.
It’s a common fallacy that alcohol reduces stress by promoting relaxation. And that might be true of one small drink. The catch is that the relief is temporary – especially since many people have difficulty sticking to just one drink. And when one becomes two or three, your adrenal function slows down, and cortisol production can drop. While we don’t want these levels consistently high, it’s also a problem when they fall too low.
On the flip side, individuals with alcoholism have shown much higher cortisol levels than those who do not consume alcoholic beverages in some research. Sudden withdrawal from alcohol can also elevate cortisol levels. The good news is that studies have indicated that after an extended period of abstinence, blood cortisol levels can indeed return to normal.
This suggests that ceasing overconsumption of alcohol is an important step to take when trying to heal dysfunction in the adrenal glands. In fact, I think we can agree that overconsumption is never a great idea. Some research has found that neurological damage is higher in individuals who put their bodies through the cycle of addiction and withdrawal repeatedly. That means that drinking alcohol responsibly is important for long term health, even after your adrenals have healed.
Alcohol, Adrenals and Quality Sleep
Another common symptom of adrenal fatigue is poor quality of sleep. Women can’t get to sleep at night, wake up constantly, or sleep soundly but wake up feeling just as tired as when they went to bed.
They often tell me that an alcoholic beverage is their sleep aid. But while alcohol might make you fall asleep faster, it skips the vital REM sleep stage, which is when mental restoration occurs. Without this essential phase of sleep, you’ll likely find yourself dealing with mental fog and memory problems.
Another reason alcohol and sleep don’t mix well is that alcohol is a diuretic. This means you may wake more frequently to use the bathroom and find yourself unable to get back to sleep.
Alcohol, Blood Sugar, and Weight Gain
One of the most frustrating symptoms of adrenal fatigue for many of the women I work with is stubborn weight gain that they just can’t shed. Letting go of alcohol may be the one thing they haven’t tried – but should!
Alcohol can increase cravings and lower your inhibitions around food. Combined with the calories in alcoholic beverages – which offer no nutritional value – and you could be setting yourself up to hold on to that extra weight.
Alcohol can impact blood sugar levels in a couple of ways. First, an occasional drink may raise your blood sugar. More serious, however, is the impact of excess alcohol. Continued overconsumption of alcohol could cause your blood sugar to drop dangerously low, particularly for individuals with diabetes.
Alcohol also has an impact on insulin production. Alcoholic beverages cause your pancreas to release more insulin which can also lead to a decline in blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar can cause lightheadedness, fatigue, and other symptoms seen with adrenal fatigue. Insulin stores extra glucose in the liver as glycogen. When the liver has no space, it sends the excess energy fat cells instead – usually in the belly. So, alcohol can have a direct impact on the size of your mid-section – causing the familiar “beer belly.”
The Impact of Alcohol on the Heart and Liver
The most common defense I hear around having a glass of wine is the research that has said it can promote heart health. However, this research hasn’t determined if it’s the alcohol or the lifestyle choices moderate drinkers make that produces this healthy effect.
Regardless, regular heavy drinking, or binge-drinking even once a week, can lead to heart problems including high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and other diseases that impact the heart.
Similarly, every time you drink alcohol, your liver must work overtime. The priority becomes metabolizing the alcohol and clearing it from your system – so the other functions of the liver are put on hold.
When dealing with adrenal fatigue, your liver is already working hard to get rid of excess hormones like adrenaline. So even a small amount of alcohol can disrupt liver function even further. Although this disruption may not be at a clinical level, symptoms can develop, including pain, anxiety, and brain fog. When your adrenals are weak, your liver is at even greater risk of adverse effects from the consumption of alcohol.
Alternative Stress Relief Supports Adrenal Healing
All the above information makes it clear that alcohol is best avoided when your adrenals are already out of balance. If you’ve been using alcohol as a relaxation technique, finding other ways to release tension and ease stress will move your healing in the right direction. Here are a few quick suggestions:
- Try some gentle exercise. While vigorous exercise isn’t advised when your adrenals are out of balance, movement is! Yoga, T’ai Chi, or a relaxed walk in the evening are all great options.
- Try meditation. Meditation can take many forms – you can repeat a mantra or affirmation as you practice deep breathing or follow a guided meditation. There are a number of apps that offer guided meditation and music for relaxation.
- Make time for something you’ve been wanting to try. Taking time for yourself isn’t selfish – it’s a necessity! Whether it’s reading a good book, learning how to dance, gardening or any other activity, you should do something that brings you joy each and every day.
- Process emotional trauma. Internal stress can be the most difficult to release because women often don’t even know it’s there. Find techniques to help you understand and process your emotions – especially if you’ve been holding on to hurt for a long time.
Alcohol in moderation can be fine for some people, but for anyone working to heal adrenal dysfunction, it’s best to avoid it altogether. When I explain all the reasons why, the women I work with are often willing to give it a try. And when they come back for follow up, they’re excited by their success! They’re feeling so much better, and realize that once the habit is broken, they don’t even miss that glass of wine. Try it – you might surprise yourself too!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD