With the coming of the New Year, many of us take a look at our lifestyle and health habits and think about making changes. Some may decide to be more physically active, tweak their diet or try to get more sleep in the coming year. However, another subset of people may choose to redefine their relationship with alcohol. In fact, the term Dry January has become a movement in which participants abstain from alcohol entirely for the first month of the year.
Like most things in life, alcohol has two sides. In moderation it can have some benefits, but when it’s overdone or abused, it can damage your health. On the plus side, alcohol has been a component of celebrations and rituals for thousands of years. In addition, scientists have found that moderate alcohol intake can reduce your risk for heart disease and ischemic stroke (caused by clogged vessels). However, the list of negatives associated with overdrinking is long. In the short term, the effects of drinking too much include disrupted sleep, dehydration, headache and an upset stomach. The long term damage from overdrinking include an increased risk for several types of cancer, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, liver disease and accidents, to name a few.
How does Chinese medicine weigh in on the use of alcohol? While more nuanced, the Chinese medical view is similar to the Western research, in which it can have some benefit, but when overconsumed, it can be incredibly damaging.
In general, alcohol is considered to be energetically warm according to Chinese theory. And the more concentrated the spirits, the warmer it is. For example, beer is the coolest, wine is warming and hard liquor is the most warming of all. In addition alcohol tends to be dampening, which means it causes water or moisture to build up in your body, causing a sensation of heaviness, weight gain, water retention and even digestive issues. In Chinese medicine too much alcohol is also said to deplete your yang, which is our energy or life force.
What you choose to drink also has specific properties. So in addition to being energetically cool, beer is bitter and sweet. The more bitter the beer, the less dampening it tends to be. Darker beers tend to be bitter, and the darker they are, the more nutrition they offer—some to the extent that they can help nourish your blood. Because of beer’s cool nature, it’s a better choice in the summer, than say, a warming red wine.
Overall wine is warmer than beer, but just like beer, the kind of wine you’re drinking makes a difference. Red wines are energetically warmer than whites. A glass of either red or white actually helps to move stagnation, is relaxing and moves blood. This just means that wine stimulates the circulation of blood and energy because it opens up the tiny capillaries throughout your body. Consumed in moderation, wine is dispersing. It gives you a feeling of well-being, loosens you up and helps you let go of the bad day you just had. This moving nature of wine makes it a good choice with heavy meals. But again, too much will cause depletion.
Hard liquor or spirits, such as vodka, gin, tequila, rum and whisky are very strong and warming. While they’re incredibly moving, drinking too much can be toxic, cause heat to build up in your body, or can overwhelm your liver. The effects of hard liquor are somewhat diluted by being mixed with other liquids, such as sparkling water or soda.
Many people wonder if alcohol be a part of a healthy lifestyle. The answer is probably, but depends on a number of factors. In Chinese medicine, small amounts of alcohol can be medicinal. In fact some therapeutic herbs are soaked in alcohol to boost their effectiveness. And a drink after a rough day or during a social situation is somewhat relaxing and promotes circulation. However drinking a number of drinks daily can easily cause your body to accumulate heat or dampness. In addition, what you choose to drink and your overall health also makes a difference. If you have a strong body constitution, you’re more likely to tolerate the effects of alcohol better than someone who is weak or depleted. And hard liquor can be a little tougher on your body than beer or wine.
The bottom line is that alcohol has been around for a long time, and consumed in moderation, it can be a part of a balanced lifestyle. The New Year offers an opportunity to reassess a number of lifestyle habits, including taking a look at how drinking alcohol actually makes you feel. You may discover you feel much better without drinking regularly. Or you may find that you’re completely at ease with your drinking habits. Regardless of where you’re at, it’s good to know a little about how alcohol is viewed in the context of Chinese medicine.