The Healthiest Types Of Alcohol, Ranked By Functional Medicine Expert
If you’re health-conscious—but still love a glass of wine with dinner, a beer or two on the weekend, or a nice long happy hour with coworkers—you’ve probably wondered how drinking affects your inflammation levels.
Inflammation is, after all, the main underlying factor in most chronic diseases. In fact, it’s such a big deal that it’s the topic of my new book, The Inflammation Spectrum, and a frequent topic of conversation during my patient consultations.
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How bad is alcohol, really?
We all know that chronic heavy alcohol use and alcohol use disorders are bad for our health. When alcohol intake becomes severe, it can lead to an increased risk for liver disease, cancer, diabetes, neurological complications, bone damage, and many more inflammation-related conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic. (1)
But what about moderate drinking or a drink every now and again?
The research on alcohol intake is very mixed. Some studies show that even very small amounts of alcohol can increase your risk for certain illnesses. For example, a study published by the American Institute for Cancer Research showed that just one drink a day could increase a person’s risk for breast cancer. Another study, (2) published in the British Medical Journal, also showed that even moderate amounts of alcohol can affect your memory.
Meanwhile, other studies—like this one published (3) in 2015—say that mild or moderate amounts of certain types of alcohol could actually be beneficial to your health. Moderate alcohol consumption is typically defined as up to one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men.
How alcohol affects inflammation
When it comes to inflammation, the research is also a bit mixed. For example, a study (4) published in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism showed that levels of the inflammatory C-reactive protein were higher in people who consumed alcohol. Other studies have shown that alcohol increases levels (5) of the endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in the gut, which is known for inducing inflammation. Finally, people who drink can also develop leaky gut, which can drive widespread inflammation in the body and brain. (6)
On the flip side, certain types of alcohol—mainly red wine—have actually displayed anti-inflammatory properties due to its high concentration of polyphenols (7) such as resveratrol. Doctors often tell their patients that moderate alcohol consumption is A-okay. As Karen Costenbader, M.D., MPH, a rheumatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told the arthritis foundation: “Moderate alcohol consumption…reduces biomarkers of inflammation, including c-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and TNF-alpha receptor 2.”
Confusing, isn’t it?
My thoughts on alcohol consumption and health
If you do consume alcohol, portions matter. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a standard drink is defined as the following: (8)
- 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer
- 8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 milliliters) of malt liquor
- 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of unfortified wine
- 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof hard liquor
The type of alcohol you reach for matters, too. The least inflammatory options are hard cider, tequila, brandy, cognac, rum, and red wine because they are grain-free.
In my practice, I recommend that my patients treat alcohol like sugar. In other words, it’s a treat—which is meant to be consumed only occasionally and in true moderation. The way I see it, there’s no doubt that alcohol can be inflammatory, mostly due to the burden that it puts on your GI tract and liver, which houses your body’s detoxification system. Not to mention, alcohol can affect your blood sugar, cause poor sleep, and lead you to indulge in processed and sugar-filled foods; foods that no-doubt contribute to inflammation.
I feel that limiting alcohol intake as much as possible is the safest approach. I often see patients who do everything “right” but still have issues with their gut, mood, anxiety levels, and inflammation levels. Oftentimes, eliminating those few drinks on the weekend or glass of wine at night is the answer.
If you think alcohol might be contributing to chronic inflammation in your body, try going alcohol-free for one month, replacing your favorite drinks with mocktails and adaptogenic elixirs. A study (9) from the University of Sussex showed that people who participated in “Dry January” reported improvements in their health and their relationship with booze. More specifically:
- 71% slept better;
- 67% had more energy;
- 58% lost weight;
- 57% had better concentration;
- 54% had better skin.
Who knows, cutting down on the booze could end up benefiting your health in more ways than one.
The Healthiest Types of Alcohol, Ranked
1. Red wine
Red wine is packed with beneficial antioxidants like resveratrol, which can help improve heart health and even lower inflammatory markers like CRP. That said, it should always be consumed in moderation and I recommend opting for organic, sulfate-free brands so you can take full advantage of its properties. If you want to further increase your intake of antioxidants, you can take resveratrol supplements or focus on eating antioxidant-rich foods like berries, leafy greens, and citrus fruits.
If (Taco) Tuesday is your favorite day of the week, you’ll be happy to know that this clean liquor made is a surprisingly healthy choice. Just make sure that you’re buying a product that is 100 percent agave, as some brands use grains in addition to agave, which can make the tequila more inflammatory. And, of course, make sure you’re drinking it on the rocks or with soda and a splash of lime instead of mixing it with sugar-filled syrups.
3. Hard Cider
If you’re craving something sweet and refreshing, hard cider is a delicious and naturally gluten-free choice. Cider is made from apples but it still contains quite a bit of sugar, so always consume it in moderation. Expert tip: Look for dry cider as this variety will still be a little sweet but will be lower in overall sugar content.
If your go-to drink is a glass of bubbly, I have great news. Due to the fermentation process, champagne actually has some probiotic properties, which means it might help promote a healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut microbiome. If you’ve got something to celebrate, champagne is a great choice.
Rum is also grain-free, which means it’s less inflammatory than other choices. That said, it’s distilled using molasses and sugarcane so it’s got a higher sugar content than some of my other top picks.
Gin is unique in that it’s distilled using botanicals like coriander, juniper, and cinnamon, which actually have antibacterial properties as well as blood sugar stabilizing and antimicrobial properties. Gin is also made using grains like wheat and barley but some experts argue that the gluten protein is broken down during the distillation process and so, depending on your level of sensitivity to gluten and grains, you may be able to tolerate it. If you do have an issue with gluten, you can choose gin brands made with potatoes.
Speaking of potatoes, vodka is another good choice if you’re looking to avoid grains. Just be sure to check the label before making your purchase and avoid flavored options with added sugar. And if you have a sensitivity to nightshades, you might want to skip this choice as well.
Most whiskeys are made from gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley, but there are also brands that use corn. Whiskey isn’t my first choice, but if it’s one of your favorites I’d recommend testing out some gluten-free options.
How do you make healthier happy hour choices?
If you can’t imagine your life without mixed drinks, it’s important to choose your mixers widely. You can start by simply saying no to soda or other pre-mixed syrups since they are loaded with sugar and can impact your gut health and perpetuate inflammation. Instead, stick to flavored seltzer like La Croix, Spindrift, or even Zevia, which is made with stevia instead of soda.
If you want to take things to the next level, using kombucha as a mixer will give you the added benefit of probiotics and the antioxidant power of tea. You can also incorporate herbs into your cocktails. You can muddle in or make homemade syrups out of lavender, ginger, or cilantro, which can not just make your drink taste a lot more interesting but they can bring additional health benefits like anxiety and stress, (10) easing digestive distress and inflammation, (11) and enhancing detoxification. (12)
Happy hour is also a fun opportunity to play around with plant-based herbal medicines, like adaptogens, which have taken the wellness world by storm. Adaptogens are a group of natural ingredients with an amazing ability to restore balance in the body and since they are most commonly found in powdered form, you can easily mix these into your drinks. (To learn more about adaptogens, check out my expert guide.)
Save this article for the next time you throw a dinner party, attend office happy hour, or make a mixed drink at home. Your gut health and inflammation levels will thank you!
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- Alcohol Use Disorder Mayo Clinic 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243
- Topiwala Anya, Allan Charlotte L, Valkanova Vyara, Zsoldos Enikő, Filippini Nicola, Sexton Claire et al. Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study BMJ 2017; 357 :j2353
- Fehér J, Lengyel G, Lugasi A. A bor kultúrtörténete, a borterápia elméleti háttere [Cultural history of wine, the theoretical background of wine therapy]. Orv Hetil. 2005;146(52):2635‐2639.
- Oliveira, Andreia, Fernando Rodríguez-Artalejo, and Carla Lopes. “Alcohol Intake and Systemic Markers of Inflammation–Shape of the Association according to Sex and Body Mass Index.” Alcohol and Alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire) 45, no. 2 (April 2010): 119–25. https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agp092.
- Bala S, Marcos M, Gattu A, Catalano D, Szabo G. Acute binge drinking increases serum endotoxin and bacterial DNA levels in healthy individuals. PLoS One. 2014;9(5):e96864. Published 2014 May 14. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096864
- Bjarnason I, Peters TJ, Wise RJ. The leaky gut of alcoholism: possible route of entry for toxic compounds. Lancet. 1984;1(8370):179‐182. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(84)92109-3
- The truth about red wine and heart health. (2019, October 22). Retrieved October 28, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/red-wine/art-20048281.
- What Is A Standard Drink? (2019, October 9). Retrieved October 28, 2019, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/what-standard-drink.
- de Visser, R. O., Robinson, E., & Bond, R. (2016). Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during “Dry January” and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychology, 35(3), 281–289. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000297
- Koulivand PH, Khaleghi Ghadiri M, Gorji A. Lavender and the nervous system. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:681304. doi:10.1155/2013/681304
- Mashhadi NS, Ghiasvand R, Askari G, Hariri M, Darvishi L, Mofid MR. Anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of ginger in health and physical activity: review of current evidence. Int J Prev Med. 2013;4(Suppl 1):S36‐S42.
- Sears ME. Chelation: harnessing and enhancing heavy metal detoxification--a review. ScientificWorldJournal. 2013;2013:219840. Published 2013 Apr 18. doi:10.1155/2013/219840
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.