If you love to drink a few beers on the weekend or attend the occasional happy hour after work, you’ve probably wondered just how much alcohol affects your health. We hear a lot of conflicting messages about alcohol; some experts say it’s actually healthy in moderation while others say it’s probably best avoided altogether.
I think the occasional drink can be part of a healthy lifestyle — but I would also argue that the type of alcohol matters. Studies have associated alcohol intake with higher levels of the inflammatory C-reactive protein (CRP). But it’s not just the alcohol itself that matters. In fact, the type of alcohol and the ingredients it is made from can make a significant difference in how healthy it is — and how you feel after drinking it.
What are the healthiest types of alcohol?
As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to help you sort through all the information out there and make healthy choices that work for you. If you’re not going to go dry, here’s how to make healthier choices when you do indulge in a drink (or two) with friends.
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, (1) easing digestive distress and inflammation, (2) and enhancing detoxification. (3)
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!
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Koulivand, Peir Hossein et al. “Lavender and the nervous system.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2013 (2013): 681304. doi:10.1155/2013/681304
- Mashhadi, Nafiseh Shokri et al. “Anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of ginger in health and physical activity: review of current evidence.” International journal of preventive medicine vol. 4,Suppl 1 (2013): S36-42.
- Sears, Margaret E. “Chelation: harnessing and enhancing heavy metal detoxification–a review.” TheScientificWorldJournal vol. 2013 219840. 18 Apr. 2013, doi:10.1155/2013/219840
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