If you’ve started turning to a glass of wine or a cocktail more often these days since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re far from alone and it’s probably no surprise.
Nearly a quarter of Americans report they were drinking more than ever as of February 2021 as a way to cope with the stress or the solitude of the previous year, and drinking heavily has long been a public health concern in the U.S. that affects all people, regardless of gender, sex, race, income level, or region.
But why is it considered a health problem? Anyone who enjoys the occasional beverage will tell you just that—they enjoy it! But the key word here is “occasional.” When drinking becomes habitual rather than occasional, it can affect your endocrine system and that is cause for concern.
What is the endocrine system?
Your endocrine system produces your body’s hormones. Hormones are essentially signals that your glands create with chemicals. These signals do many things, including the regulation of your growth, letting your body know when to begin puberty, metabolic processes, and controlling your moods.
Each of these hormones are sent from a specific gland, and then distributed throughout your body where they can then work their magic on tissue in various places.
Your hormones control 4 functional areas of your body:
- Energy production, utilization, and storage
- Blood pressure and bone mass maintenance
- How we grow and develop as we age
How does alcohol affect your endocrine system?
Hormones are very technical and precise, working on a delicate internal clock to be released at exactly the right time to the right tissues in your body. If you’re drinking more than your body can handle, alcohol can throw off that internal clock. If drinking impairs the functions of your glands that release hormones, and the functions of the tissues those hormones target, it can result in medical problems.
Disrupted blood sugar levels
Your body’s main energy source is sugar glucose, which it gets from food, synthesis in the body, and from breakdown of the glycogen stored in the liver. Insulin and glucagon are hormones, and they control your body’s blood sugar levels. These 2 crucial hormones work in tandem to maintain your body’s constant concentration of blood glucose. Think of it this way: insulin is in charge of lowering glucose, while glucagon is in charge of raising it. The 2 are always at work side by side.
Alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to maintain its levels of glucose. Chronic heavy drinking can increase your glucose levels over time, or even lead to glucose intolerance in otherwise healthy people. Long-term chronic drinking could alter the effectiveness of diabetes medications, cause hypoglecemic and hyperglemic episodes, or reduce your body’s responsiveness to insulin.
Interference with reproductive systems
Testosterone and estrogen are 2 hormones you’re probably familiar with, because they’re responsible for the reproductive systems. Testosterone and estrogen are synthesized in the testes and ovaries, respectively. For people with testes, testosterone is responsible for sexual maturation and sperm development. In people with ovaries, estrogen is responsible for breast development, body hair distribution, menstrual cycle regulation, and help maintaining pregnancy.
Chronic drinking can interfere with all of these functions of the reproductive system. Drinking too much regular can result in impaired sexual and reproductive functions, reduced testosterone levels, altered sperm structure, cessation of menstruation, early menopause, or risk of spontaneous miscarriage.
Increased cortisol levels
Research shows that a bout of heaving drinking could heighten your body’s cortisol levels, not just when you’re drinking but while withdrawing from the effects of drinking. Cortisol can spike your blood pressure in the short term, but when heighten in the long term it can impact body functions such as bone growth, digestion, reproduction, and wound repair.
- Structure of your bones and calcium metabolismYour hormones are crucial for maintaining the levels of calcium in your body. We all know calcium is important for keeping our bones and teeth strong, but it also helps the cells of our body communicate with each other. Several hormones help regulate the way calcium is absorbed and distributed between our bones and the fluids in our body. Consuming alcohol can interfere with those hormones and that metabolism, which can lead to osteoporosis, a loss of bone mass, and an increased risk of bone fractures.
There is good news though!
Experts say more studies need to be done, but current research shows that the brain can repair itself after quitting alcohol and the liver begins healing within just a few days. Your body is capable of healing to some degree. To get a full picture, you can consult an endocrinologist.
If alcohol isn’t an addiction for you, but you think it’s time to take a break—consider trying a booze free month. Your endocrine system will thank you!