There are so many rules around not drinking in North American culture: We’re told not to drink on an empty stomach. That alcohol disrupts our sleep. Not to drink during the day (for health and social reasons). But if we do want to imbibe (and responsibly), is there a good time and a right way to do it?
While there are no hard-and-fast rules, HuffPost spoke with dietitians who recommended the best (and worst) time of day to imbibe an alcoholic beverage, as well as some suggestions on when to stop drinking to get a better night’s sleep and the best alcohol to choose if you’re going to indulge. One hint: Olivia Pope on “Scandal” had it right (carbs and red wine).
The best time of day to drink (health-wise, that is)
While we all love a sparkly breakfast mimosa with our Sunday brunch, imbibing before the scrambled eggs and pancakes is not the best idea, as our dietitians cautioned against drinking on an empty stomach. Registered dietitian Jerlyn Jones explained, “Alcohol enters your bloodstream through your stomach and small intestine. If your stomach’s empty when you start drinking, the alcohol will quickly enter your bloodstream. So it’s always a good idea to eat before you drink, no matter the time of day.” Breakfast drinking is frowned on for a good reason.
Indeed, when alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream too quickly, it can become dangerous and potentially toxic, according to registered dietitian Kimberly Rose Francis. To head off any potential ill effects from too much alcohol and not enough food, Rose Francis suggests that you pair your booze with your biggest meal of the day: dinner. She told HuffPost, “Generally speaking, dinner may be the ideal meal of choice, as it’s usually larger and loaded with carbs, fats and protein that help to slow down how quickly alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream.”
But, be aware there is no “perfect” time of day to have an adult drink, especially as alcohol’s effect on your body can depend on your age, gender, general health and other factors such as medications or even stress.
How soon before bedtime can you have a drink?
For sensitive sleepers, there is only bad news. According to a study published in Substance Abuse, researchers found that drinkers who partook as early as the late afternoon experienced sleep disruptions. Jones explained, “With late afternoon (or happy hour) drinking, as much as six hours before bedtime can disrupt sleep, even though alcohol is no longer in the brain at bedtime.”
The National Institutes of Health recommends stopping drinking four hours before heading to bed, but this also depends on how much you’ve been drinking. According to a study observing alcohol intake and sleep in Finnish employees, low amounts of alcohol (one to two drinks) had a mild impact on sleep quality. In contrast, higher amounts of alcohol decreased sleep quality by almost 40%.
Registered dietitian Amanda Frankeny explained, “Drinking anywhere close to four hours before bed often causes people to wake up often, have night sweats, issues with breathing, nightmares and headaches.”
One bad night of bingeing can also impact the rest of your week’s sleep, according to Frankeny. She explained, “If you have a night of heavy boozing (meaning about four or more drinks in about two hours for women or five-plus drinks for men), that can cause your melatonin levels to be out of sorts and impact sleep for up to a week. It can also impact your brain function, heart health, memory, blood sugar regulation and mood.”
Is there a ‘best alcohol’ to drink?
Olivia Pope taught us to love red wine and popcorn, and she may have understood its potency. The drink is often lauded for its antioxidant resveratrol, making it a somewhat beneficial choice. Rose Francis explained further that “resveratrol is found in grape skin and consequently, red wine, since red wine is made from both grape skin and pulp. This is unlike white wine, which is made from pulp only. Resveratrol may help to lower blood pressure, aid in heart health, exhibit antitumor activity and much more.”
But Frankeny added a reminder that how we enjoy alcohol is just as important as the type of alcohol we drink. “The biggest variance between the alcohols is actually the drinker’s perception and the context in which they’re drinking,
she said. “For example, you may sip wine paired with your meal, drink beer at a concert and do multiple shots at a wedding. If you claim that changing the types of alcohol makes you behave differently, it’s probably because of your drinking circumstance and belief.”
This is an excellent time to remind everyone how little we should be drinking if we choose to drink. The recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one serving of alcohol per day for women and no more than two servings of alcohol per day for men. Rose Francis explained that a serving depends on the type of alcohol you choose. “One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content), 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content) 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content), and 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor,” she said.
But that’s not to encourage you to take up drinking vino. If you don’t already drink, dietitians don’t advise starting. “Although some studies have found that a modest wine intake might decrease the risk of heart disease, anything more than moderate drinking may actually be harmful to health,” Jones pointed out.
Do other cultures do it better than Americans?
If “Emily in Paris” had you lusting over the French’s laissez-faire attitude toward daytime drinking, then throw those rose-colored glasses away.
While France and other European cultures are known for their hedonistic enjoyment of life, those countries are not immune to the dangers of overconsumption. “The French don’t necessarily understand alcohol differently than Americans; they simply have different cultural and societal norms that influence their alcohol intake,” Rose Francis said.
She cited that, in 2019, France’s National Institute of Cancer launched a campaign to encourage less alcohol consumption among the nation’s citizens. “As a country with one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption, this effort was made in response to thousands of preventable deaths that were the result of this favored pastime,” she said. “This lets us know that limitations to alcohol consumption make sense and should not be lightly regarded.”
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