Andrea Gates, 42, an advertising executive, used to enjoy a glass of wine or two, but found herself gaining weight, losing energy and having breakouts when she turned 40—even though her diet, stress level and exercise routine stayed the same. It was only after a friend suggested she cut out alcohol that her symptoms subsided and she started to feel more energetic.
Andrea’s experience isn’t unusual. “It takes far less alcohol to impact our bodies at 40 and up than it did in our 20s,” says Barbara Krantz, DO, medical director and director of research at the Hanley Center, a rehab facility in West Palm Beach, FL. “Since alcohol takes longer to metabolize in an aging body, the amount a person drinks in their 20s may affect them more intensely and more quickly if they continue to drink that same amount in their 40s.”
Starting in our 30s, our bodies’ levels of body fat naturally increase while the amount of lean muscle mass decreases. Those two physiological changes have an impact on the effects of alcohol in your body, explains Gary Murray, PhD, program director for the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Blood alcohol level rises higher in individuals with more body fat,” he says.
Another reason you may be starting to feel a bigger buzz with fewer cocktails is because of changes in your liver. When you drink, alcohol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach and small intestine and then metabolized by liver enzymes, explains Dr. Krantz. But your liver becomes less efficient as you get older: Its size increases, while its hepatocytes (the functioning cells) and blood flow decrease, causing it to metabolize alcohol more slowly.
Age isn’t the only factor affecting your body’s response to booze; your gender is, too. Before the age of 50, men have higher levels of the stomach enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol. This means a man will metabolize a martini faster than a woman, explains Dr. Murray. “Once you turn 50, that difference between men and women disappears,” he says. “Men’s enzyme levels are downgraded to that of a woman. Men who used to drink more than their wives often find that when they hit 50, both the effects of alcohol and the hangover hit them a little harder.”
That’s what happened to John, a 50-year-old marketing executive, who used to enjoy a drink or two after work to relax. Soon after he hit his milestone birthday, he found that drinking the same number of his signature cocktail began to lead to headaches, insomnia and hangover symptoms the morning after. When he limited his intake to a single glass of white wine a night, however, the issues disappeared.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean women can belly up to the bar without negative consequences; they also experience physiological changes as they age that affect their tolerance. “Alcohol can have a direct effect on women’s hormones that control their energy, blood pressure, bone mass, growth and development,” Dr. Krantz explains. “When it interferes with hormone actions, alcohol can exacerbate or cause diabetes and increase the risk of osteoporosis.”
Too many happy hours can also contribute to unwanted weight gain. “Alcohol stimulates appetite, makes us want to eat more unhealthy foods and lowers our inhibitions, all of which can lead to us making unhealthy choices,” says Jacquie Lavin, MMedSci, PhD, head of nutrition and research at Slimming World, a UK-based weight-loss organization. In a survey, the company found that many people who drank past a personal tipping point—equivalent to about three glasses of wine—consumed a whopping 6,300 extra calories over the following 24 hours.
To make matters worse, getting older also makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it—whether you’re drinking or not, points out Gabrielle Francis, DC, ND, a New York City–based naturopath and author of RxStar Remedy (HarperCollins, 2014). “Most people’s metabolisms slow as they age due to declining hormone levels, especially of the sex hormones and thyroid hormone,” she says. Add alcohol to the mix and it gets even harder to maintain a healthy weight. “In addition to being highly caloric, alcohol raises cortisol; cortisol raises insulin and insulin causes fat to deposit in the belly,” she says.
Beyond limiting the number of drinks you consume, avoid adding sugary mixers to spirits, which increase calories, cortisol and belly fat, she adds.
MEDS DON’T MAKE GOOD MIXERS
The older you get, the more likely you are to be treating other health conditions with prescription medications, which may be affected if you’re taking them while drinking. Dr. Francis recommends avoiding alcohol when taking the following medications, as alcohol can increase the severity of the drugs’ side effects, lessen their benefits, worsen an existing issue or trigger other harmful conditions: antihistamines; benzodiazepines (for anxiety); cimetidine and other stomach-acid-blocking drugs; ketoconazole (used to treat fungal skin infections); Coumadin and other blood thinners; steroids; and nicotine.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can also be problematic. While aspirin can cause gastric bleeding, it’s a better option than acetaminophen (Tylenol), says Dr. Murray, which, like alcohol, can increase the generation of a toxic metabolite called CYP2E1 that causes cell and tissue damage to the liver.
MAKING THE MORNING AFTER A HAPPY HOUR
Obviously, the best way to mitigate the effects of alcohol is to not drink it in the first place, but for most people, that’s not an attractive option.
“After that, the next most effective cure is limiting the amount you consume and staying hydrated when you drink,” says Dr. Murray. Depending on your weight, you metabolize about one drink per hour. Because alcohol distributes to the water in our bodies, it’s also important to stay hydrated, especially as you clock the years. Dr. Murray’s cocktail party trick is to alternate drinks with a non-alcoholic beverage, like club soda with lime, juice or water.
And don’t try and “save” calories by not eating before cocktail hour. “Drinking on an empty stomach is just asking for a hangover because the alcohol gets into your body faster,” says Dr. Murray.
CHEERS TO A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
Gym-goers will be happy to know that your fitness level at any age is directly related to how you metabolize alcohol, explains Dr. Francis. When you’re in shape, you increase the circulation of blood, nutrients and toxins through the liver and kidneys. The more aerobic the exercise, the more blood that’s pumped through your system and the more your body is able to counter the effects of drinking and rebound the next day.
Meanwhile, maintaining lean muscle mass, through Pilates or other strength-training regimens, helps “soak up” alcohol and prevents it from hitting your bloodstream too quickly. Fit people can definitely deal with the side effects of alcohol better as they age, adds Dr. Murray.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
A healthy diet is equally important. “Someone who is nutritionally starved or eats an un-enriched diet with few vitamins would feel the effects of alcohol more greatly,” Dr. Murray points out.
“As we age, we are also exposed to a greater amount of toxins, which leads to fewer enzymes being available for detoxification and affects the way our body detoxes alcohol,” adds Dr. Francis. However, healthy eating can help your body handle the toxins that come from moderate drinking. She recommends a balanced (and preferably organic) diet that includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein and eight to 10 glasses of water or herbal tea a day. Powerhouse foods such as broccoli, cabbage, artichokes, dark leafy greens, carrots, garlic and onions, along with spices like turmeric, rosemary, basil and cilantro will give the liver and kidneys the optimal nutrition.
Other treatments and supplements can mitigate the impact of alcohol, says Dr. Francis. She recommends acupuncture focused on liver and kidney balance, massage to support detoxification through the lymphatic system and taking steam or sauna sessions to help detox other chemicals, leaving more liver enzymes for alcohol detox. Supplements and herbs that support a healthy liver include: B-complex; milk thistle; dandelion; artichoke; burdock; turmeric (curcumin); omega-3-rich oils (flaxseed, for example); glutathione; and CoQ10.
“A NATURAL BUZZ”
Jennifer, a 52-year-old writer, took a month off from her nightly wine-with-dinner ritual after she began to experience fogginess, problems concentrating and fatigue. Soon afterward, she noticed a radical change in her productivity, memory and energy levels. “I sleep better, wake up early and refreshed, and stay productive and creative all day,” she says. “I don’t miss the wine, but I love how I feel. I have a natural buzz all day long!”