Dr. John Douillard weighs the pros and cons of drinking and how to manage alcohol consumption the Ayurvedic way, including which herbs to take to protect your liver.
The Ancient Ayurvedic Wisdom and Modern Science on Drinking Alcohol
The debate about whether alcohol has beneficial effects rages on, with the majority of studies suggesting that low to moderate use has positive hormetic effects, particularly for heart health.
Hormesis is the science of how ingesting a tiny amount of a toxic or poisonous substance can make you stronger. This concept was well understood some 2,500 years ago in Ayurveda. The Caraka Samhita (Vol IV., Cikitsasthana. Ch. XXIV), Ayurveda’s primary text, indicates that alcohol can work like a rasyanana (rejuvenating agent) when used appropriately.
Western medical studies have linked low to moderate consumption of alcohol to reduced heart attack and heart failure rates, reduced risk of ischemic stroke, lower risk for dementia, decreased risk of diabetes, and a reduced risk of osteoporosis.
In line with the Ayurvedic texts, studies also show that excessive alcohol is a poison associated with increased cardiovascular risk, along with increased risk for more than 50 other diseases.
In a July 2021 study, published in the journal Lancet Oncology, even moderate alcohol consumption (up to two drinks a day, which some people may also consider excessive) was associated with higher cancer risk. The researchers found that one in four breast cancers and one of five colon cancers in Canada could be attributed to alcohol.
According to Ayurveda, there are benefits to the ingestion of alcohol, but the slope is slippery. Knowing how much alcohol is good and how much more is harmful is the key Ayurvedic take away.
Ayurveda and the Three Levels of Alcohol Intoxication
From the Ayurvedic perspective, you may have a drinking problem when you find yourself thinking about alcohol, craving it, or looking forward to drinking it. In this definition of addiction, alcohol has control over your thoughts and it’s time to take back the control.
According to Ayurveda, there are three levels of alcohol consumption.
- Alcohol consumption in small amounts, which does not deplete ojas, is called sukha-mada-prada. This level of consumption can result in exhilaration, energy, happiness, creativity, humor, deep sleep, waking up refreshed, mental satisfaction, nourishment, good health, digestive health, excellent virility, and pleasant intoxication.
2. Level two of alcohol intoxication is when the health-promoting hormetic effects start to become damaging. According to Ayurveda, during the second stage you begin to forget things and speech becomes slurred. Or, movement and speech can be excessive and behavior can be either appropriately or inappropriately humorous.
3. In the third level of alcohol intoxication, happiness disappears, your ability to discern right from wrong or what is helpful or harmful disappears, and you become a danger to yourself and others. Peaceful, sattvic qualities are destroyed and replaced by illusion, fear, anger, and even death. Truly, the poisonous nature of alcohol is on display in the third level of intoxication.
Are You Drinking Too Much by Western Standards?
Alcohol is a serious issue: It’s the seventh leading preventable cause of death in the U.S, While most folks drink responsibly, there seems to be a fine line between being in and out of control of your alcohol use.
For example, the number of Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs)—when drinking causes distress or harm—in the U.S. is quite staggering, with almost 14.5 million adult and 414,000 youth (ages 12–17) cases reported in 2016.
What might surprise you is how easy it is to be diagnosed with an AUD. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), if you answer yes to two out of the 11 following questions, you would be diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder.
“Am I Drinking Too Much?” Quiz
In the past year, have you:
- Had times when you ended up drinking more or longer than you intended?
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
- Experienced craving—a strong need, or urge—to drink?
- Found that drinking or being sick from drinking often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?
Of course, the first step in addressing a problem is becoming aware that you have one. If you did answer yes to any two of these questions in the past year, visiting a health professional who can perform a more formal assessment may help ward off an addiction in the making.
Alcohol, Ojas, and the Heart
Ojas is what Ayurveda considers the most refined aspect of digestion. It takes a full 30 days of metabolic transformations to produce and is linked to immunity, vitality, virility, a glowing complexion, happiness, joy, longevity, and the highest levels of contentment.
Alcohol consumption at optimal levels can build ojas, but consumption in excess can deplete it.
Ojas, or your vital essence, and alcohol, essentially a poison, have opposing properties. According to the Caraka Samhita the qualities of alcohol neutralize the qualities of ojas.
The qualities of ojas versus the qualities of alcohol:
- Fast acting
In the body, alcohol has a fast-acting effect on the heart, which is considered the controlling organ of the body and is responsible for the health and delivery of ojas.
When alcohol is taken appropriately, the heart and its reserve of ojas, is not negatively affected and the effects of ojas on the mind and body can be enhanced. But when alcohol is taken inappropriately, ojas is depleted and the effect is damaging.
Modern science has confirmed both the positive (hormetic) and negative (poisonous) effects of alcohol on the heart, body and mind.
Drinking According to Body Type and Season
The Caraka Samhita describes the kinds of alcohol that should be consumed by each body type and in each season.
Vata: You should drink sweet drinks made from wheat and grains that are harvested in fall for winter drinking. Eat warm, unctuous foods as the antidote to the cold, dry nature of a vata constitution and the winter.
Pitta: You should drink alcohol made from grapes, like wine, while eating sweet and cooling foods that are harvested in the summer.
Kapha: Drink alcohol prepared with honey, including mead, and eat heating, spicy, or pungent foods.
Whatever your body type, try not to drink as a way to numb out stress!
Get LifeSpa’s free seasonal eating guide, with recipes, lifestyle tips, and more for eating in alignment with nature.
Pros and Cons to Alcohol and Your Health
Drinking is hard on the liver and, over time, can take its toll. However, as we mention above, drinking in moderation is associated with benefits. Here are more pros and cons for your consideration:
Cons of Drinking Alcohol
- According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), In 2019, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 10,142 deaths in the U.S.
- In 2019, of the 85,688 liver disease deaths among individuals ages 12 and older, 43.1 percent involved alcohol. Among males, 53,486 liver disease deaths occurred, and 45.6 percent involved alcohol. Among females, 32,202 liver disease deaths occurred, and 39.0 percent involved alcohol.
- Among all cirrhosis deaths in 2015, 49.5 percent were alcohol related. The proportion of alcohol- related cirrhosis deaths was highest (76.8 percent) among persons ages 25 to 34, followed by persons ages 35 to 44, at 72.7 percent.37
- From 2010 to 2016, alcohol-related liver disease was the primary cause of almost 1 in 3 liver transplants in the United States, replacing hepatitis C virus infection as the leading cause of liver transplantation due to chronic liver disease.
- Research has shown that people who misuse alcohol have a greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, and stomach bleeding, as well as cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum. These individuals may also have problems managing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders. They may increase their likelihood of unsafe sexual behavior.
Pros of Drinking Alcohol
Moderate alcohol consumption—one drink for adult women and two drinks for adult men per day—may have beneficial effects on health. According to the NIH, these include:
- Decreased risk of heart disease and mortality due to heart disease.
- Decreased risk of ischemic stroke (in which the arteries to the brain become narrowed or blocked, resulting in reduced blood flow).
- Decreased risk of diabetes.
See also Ayurveda’s Summer Thirst Trap
How to Protect Your Liver from Alcohol
Even thousands of years ago, Ayurvedic experts suggested herbs to protect the liver from toxic substances, including, poisons and stress. Today, these herbs are needed more than ever to ward off higher levels of stress and pollution, as well as high rates of alcohol consumption.
The herbs that help detoxify and protect the liver from the damage of alcohol are bitter. The five most common used in Ayurveda are bhumyamalaki, barberry, turmeric, guduchi, and amalaki, which make up the LifeSpa Liver Repair formula.
Taking these herbs before drinking alcohol has been shown to help protect the liver from alcohol-related toxicity.
5 Ayurvedic Herbs for Your Liver
- Bhumyamalaki (Phyllanthus amarus) is Ayurveda’s most revered liver-protective herb. In one study, it supported the healthy function of liver cells when exposed to mild-to-moderate alcohol stress. In another study, bhumyamalaki enhanced liver cell recovery from mild to moderate alcohol-induced liver cell injury. It did so by restoring liver enzymes to normal levels after injury.
- Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) are extremely bitter, vitamin C-rich berries used for centuries to protect the liver, increase bile flow, and support healthy liver cell function and healthy blood sugar levels already within a normal range. Studies suggest that barberry is rich in an alkaloid called berberine and is a potent antioxidant and liver protectant.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a bitter rhizome that has thousands of studies suggesting benefits for the skin, digestion, brain, and liver. For the liver, turmeric has been shown to boost the body’s natural antioxidants and liver- and brain-protectant properties when exposed to alcohol-induced oxidative stress.
- Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) has been shown to exhibit antioxidant effects protecting both the liver and kidneys when exposed to a wide array of toxins including heavy metals, environmental toxins, and pollutants. Guduchi supports production of powerful liver-protective enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione peroxidase, which are all depleted when exposed to alcohol.
- Amalaki (Phyllanthus emblica), or Indian Gooseberry, is a small fruit rich in vitamin C, antioxidants, and nitric oxide-producing compounds. It has been shown in studies to support healthy liver cells by increasing superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione. In another study, one of the tannoids in amalaki demonstrated protection against mild to moderate alcohol-induced brain mitochondrial dysfunction.
So, Can I Drink?
It’s clear that alcohol can damage the liver and compromise liver function, while also exposing the body to a host of other health issues. While many studies suggest a small amount of alcohol is good for the heart, there are other studies suggesting that there are more health risks than benefits, and that we should avoid it all together.
My suggestion is to use moderation and re-introduce the bitter taste back into your diet. In a toxic world lacking in bitter foods (roots, berries, spices, and herbs) that protect the liver, supplementing with protective whole herbs makes sense.
And for a quick boost to liver health, pop a Liver Repair capsule before drinking. Disclaimer: No herbal supplements can prevent intoxication, and herbal supplements are not intended to treat or prevent the consequence of excessive alcohol consumption.