Have you ever wondered why you feel lethargic after a night of partying, or why you’ve gained weight after attending too many happy hours? If you suspect the alcohol, you’re likely right — and it's not only because alcohol contains empty calories. In fact, alcohol causes weight gain primarily due to alcohol’s effects on metabolism.
What Exactly Is Metabolism?
Simply put, metabolism is the process by which the body converts food and drinks into energy. It involves a complex network of enzymes and hormones that not only convert calories into energy but also determine how efficiently that energy is used.
It's a bit like a car engine: food provides the fuel, and metabolism provides the power. Every move you make, even the slightest finger twitch, requires energy, and everything you eat and drink affects your metabolism. Our basic bodily processes, like breathing, blood circulation, and cell repair, require a significant amount of energy, even while we’re at rest. This is known as our basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Catabolism and anabolism are the two primary phases of metabolism. Anabolism is the process of creating the substances that the cells require, and catabolism is the breakdown of molecules to produce energy.
Hitting the Brakes
Many factors can affect metabolism, but body composition is the primary one. Muscle burns more calories than fat, even at rest. Our metabolism slows down if we lose muscle and gain fat, which is common as we age. That’s why maintaining muscle mass with strength exercises and a diet high in protein is so important, especially as we age.
Other factors are also at play when it comes to metabolism. The thyroid hormone, for instance, is crucial for managing metabolism. Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) can significantly impair metabolism. If you're gaining weight while eating healthily and exercising frequently, or if you're feeling especially chilly or worn out, you should consult your doctor.
Gut bacteria have a significant impact on metabolism, according to a surprising study published in Cell Metabolism in 2023. Researchers found that certain bacteria produce compounds that influence how well our cells respond to insulin, a hormone critical to metabolism. This fascinating new field of research suggests that maintaining a healthy gut microbiome could improve metabolic health.
Cutting in Line
What about alcohol, then? Research indicates that drinking can affect the body's ability to expend energy in a variety of ways. Our body views alcohol as a toxin that needs to be removed ASAP. As a result, the liver prioritizes metabolizing alcohol over all other nutrients. Furthermore, while the liver is busy processing alcohol, other metabolic processes, like glucose production and fat burning, are put on the back burner.
Imagine your liver as a bustling restaurant kitchen with alcohol as a demanding customer who, if not serviced right away, will burn the restaurant down. The kitchen will put all other orders, like those for fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, on hold in order to serve this guest first.
The result is a slowed metabolism. Nutrients that would normally be metabolized for energy are instead stored as fat, which can lead to weight gain. And this isn't just a “one-off” event: regular alcohol consumption can lead to persistent metabolic slowdown, making it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight.
But it doesn't stop there! Alcohol also interferes with sleep, which has an indirect impact on metabolism. A healthy metabolism depends on getting enough sleep; therefore, when alcohol disrupts that sleep, metabolism slows down.
Alcohol also interferes with metabolism by causing extra digestive system disturbances. A 2023 study found that chronic heavy drinking might alter the composition of our gut microbiota, changing how our body metabolizes alcohol and other nutrients and making it more difficult to effectively absorb nutrients.
Moreover, alcohol both stimulates our appetite and decreases our self-control, which can lead to overeating. And let's be honest: we’re probably not reaching for a salad when we’re drunk, right? We’re more likely to opt for that midnight pizza. This connection between alcohol and poor eating choices was explored in a study analyzing college students’ junk food intake, which revealed a higher preference for unhealthy food choices when drinking. These additional calories spell double trouble when combined with a slower metabolism.
Reduced Metabolic Efficiency
Finally, recent studies suggest a far-reaching impact of alcohol on our metabolic efficiency, even with modest intake.
Alcohol is a significant metabolic disruptor that introduces extra calories without nutritional benefit. This hinders metabolic efficiency, as the body prioritizes metabolizing alcohol over other nutrients. The result is an increased storage of unused fats and sugars, leading to weight gain and a higher risk of metabolic syndrome — a condition that happens when the body doesn't respond properly to insulin, leading to higher levels of glucose in the blood.
The implications of reduced metabolic efficiency are profound. In addition to predisposing people to obesity and diabetes, it also contributes to cardiovascular disorders and can potentially exacerbate liver diseases. Moreover, a sluggish metabolism could lead to chronic fatigue, decreased cognitive function, and a poor immune response. Is It Fixable?
The question on your mind might be — are the effects of alcohol on metabolism permanent? Here’s some good news: just like many other processes in the body, many of these effects can be reversed. While chronic heavy alcohol use can cause lasting damage, the body has a remarkable capacity to heal and adapt.
Here are a few steps you can take to reverse or mitigate the effects of alcohol on metabolism:
- Reduced alcohol intake. The first and most crucial step is reducing alcohol consumption. Cutting down allows the body to redirect its metabolic resources towards processing nutrients effectively, thereby improving metabolic efficiency.
- Healthy diet. Consuming a balanced diet rich in lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can provide the nutrients your body needs to function properly and improve metabolic efficiency.
- Regular exercise. Physical activity can boost your metabolism and help burn off excess calories. It also improves insulin sensitivity, which is crucial for metabolic health.
- Adequate sleep. Quality sleep is essential for metabolic health. Rest helps the body regulate hormones involved in metabolism, including insulin.
- Hydration. Proper hydration is essential for all metabolic processes. Drinking sufficient water can help your body metabolize and eliminate alcohol more efficiently.
- Medical guidance. In some cases, seeking professional medical help is necessary. Healthcare providers can offer personalized advice and, if needed, medications to manage associated conditions like fatty liver disease or insulin resistance.
Does Moderation Help?
While moderating alcohol consumption doesn't directly increase metabolism, it can certainly help decrease the negative impacts that alcohol has on our metabolic system and allow our body's metabolism to function better.
When we consume alcohol in large amounts, the redirection of metabolic resources can lead to a buildup of unprocessed nutrients, which can contribute to weight gain and other metabolic glitches.
By drinking in moderation or abstaining from alcohol, we free up these metabolic resources and allow the liver to work its magic, as it becomes more efficient at processing fats and sugars. The result? An improvement in overall metabolic efficiency. Moreover, moderation can help prevent other alcohol-related disruptions that can jam up our metabolism — for example, sleep disturbances, hormonal imbalances, and damage to the liver.
Thankfully, cutting down or quitting alcohol will help your body restore its natural balance. Within 30 days, you’re likely to see a shift in weight as your metabolism revs back up.
With this newfound knowledge, you can make informed decisions about your alcohol consumption and its potential effects on your metabolism.
End the Fight
Ready to let your metabolism recover, and give your body and mind a chance to recalibrate? The Reframe app is here to help! With the tools and skills in the app, you can shift your mindset in ways that result in long-lasting change without white-knuckling it.
What can you expect when you join? Our #1-rated app will give you access to daily readings that will teach you all about the science behind alcohol and how it affects your mind and body. You’ll also get a set of daily tasks, including a journal prompt and other activities like guided meditations and motivational quotes to help you throughout the day. You’ll join a worldwide community of caring, compassionate people who share their stories and advice through our 24/7 Forum chat. And if you’d like extra help, we can connect you with licensed coaches for one-on-one counseling sessions and daily check-in calls via Zoom.
The Reframe in-app Toolkit is a treasure trove of resources designed to help you in the everyday situations you might face and will provide you with ways to deal with cravings without having to white knuckle your way to change. The Reframe app is free for 7 days — so go ahead and give it a try! We’re confident that we can help you improve your life, and we’d love to help you on your journey.