“Just keep a bottle of wine in the bathroom. You’re going to need it. Trust me, it’s the only alone time you’re going to get.”
This is an actual piece of advice I got while I was pregnant.
Because of the person I am, I chose not to challenge her in the moment. But honestly, it rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until recently I finally nailed it down: why is wine the necessary component of alone time? Why did I have to hide the wine in the bathroom?
Why has wine become synonymous with relaxation and self-care for moms?
Mommy wine culture is a thing, but we don’t limit it to just wine. Jokes extend to beer, vodka, margaritas, mimosas and marijuana. And while there’s nothing wrong with drinking in moderation we have to ask ourselves – why is alcohol the socially accepted answer to mama needing to relax.
Before we get much further I want to acknowledge that this attitude isn’t limited to “mamas”. Any primary parent can fall into this trap, whether they identify as male, female, or are non-binary. Because most of mommy wine culture is focused on cis-women I am using “mama” and “mommy” in this post.
Most of the research is also going to be cis-female focused. However, if you are non-binary or a primary parent who was AFAB this can still apply to you. And if you are AMAB, you can easily slip into “mommy wine culture” too, whether or not you identify as female.
How it impacts health
Before we get to how our society treats mommy wine culture, let’s start with how our bodies metabolize alcohol.
When we drink alcohol, absorption begins almost right away. 20% of the alcohol is absorbed in the stomach, while the remaining 80% is absorbed in the small intestine. The liver is the main organ which metabolizes, or processes, ethanol – the main component of alcohol.
If we drink in moderation, this metabolic process is easy. Nothing stays in the bloodstream longer than needed and there are no adverse effects outside of a mild buzz and slight feelings of euphoria.
But “moderation” is a problem. What does moderation even mean?
Drinking in moderation
When I visited Scotland I noticed a helpful graphic on the side of my cider cans; it showed me that men could have two units of this can of cider but women should only have one. Naturally, I inferred that drinking in moderation was “two drinks for men and one drink for women, daily.”
In fact, this is what many of us consider moderation. But this is way off base for two reasons.
The first is serving size
According to Wine Folly, the average 25 fl oz (750ml) bottle of wine is divided into 5 5oz servings. Restaurants will often serve 6 oz because you’re paying by the glass and it’s a bit more pricey, so they’ll serve it with a wink and a smile.
But just like with junk food packaging, humans like to fill and empty containers. If we’re served a 20 fl oz bottle of pop with 2.5 servings, we will drink 2.5 servings as one. And if an average red wine glass can fit 2 cups or 16 fl oz of wine, that’s what we’re going to pour (especially if our judgement is already impaired by a previous glass of wine.)
Filling a red wine glass is 3.2 servings of wine. And if you use a typical wine glass (usually used for white wine) you’re still pouring 1.125 cups which is 9 ounces – almost two servings.
The second is metabolism
The second issue is that women and those AFAB process alcohol differently than men and those AMAB (and this isn’t even taking HRT into account). But, most studies on healthy, moderate alcohol intake are done on cis-gendered men and do not apply to women (especially those doing HRT) or those AFAB.
In a study from 2006, Danish researchers compared two populations: 27,000 men and 30,000 women and found that, at least in terms of heart health, while men did better with a daily drink of wine, women did better with one drink weekly.
In fact, for each additional drink per week, we increase our risk of many health issues. Let’s break them down.
Let’s start out with the good news: moderate (and I mean actual, one drink a week, moderate) consumption of alcohol may be beneficial for heart health! Hooray!
According to the Million Women study, moderate consumption of alcohol might maybe, could be, possibly ok for heart health. But it’s not fantastic.
Some of you red wine drinkers just said, “but resveratrol!” to your screens. Don’t worry, I got you covered:
Resveratrol is a polyphenol which acts like an antioxidant. Polyphenols protect the body against damage from cancer and heart disease, the two leading causes of death in women. Scientists speculate that red wine has enough resveratrol to be beneficial to humans, but no studies have ever been done to confirm this.
In fact, the only studies that have been done were done in mice and the amount of resveratrol tested was the equivalent to drinking at least 35 bottles of wine per day (which is a little above the recommended serving size.)
But resveratrol doesn’t come from the wine itself, it comes from the skin of red grapes. You can theoretically get resveratrol by eating red grapes (along with the vitamins and minerals in the fruit itself) and get the same health benefits. And frankly, you should, because here’s the bad news:
Any cardiovascular benefit from drinking red wine is outweighed by the increased risk of cancers. In fact, doctors writing the editorial for the Million Woman study remarked:
“From a standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer. There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe.”Michael Lauer, MD and Paul Sorlie, PhD of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
For all genders, alcohol raises the risk of many types of cancers, including:
- and, colorectal
In fact, a 2008 study found that any person consuming more than 50 grams of alcohol per day (5 “standard” drinks) increased their risk of colorectal cancer by 40% and women within that same group increased their breast cancer risk by 50%.
Even if they only drank 18g (less than 2 drinks) they still had a significantly higher risk of cancer.
Another 2008 study found that only 1-2 drinks per day can raise the risk of hormone-sensitive tumors to 32% higher than non-drinkers. The jump to 3 drinks raises the risk to over 50%.
No matter the type of alcohol, each additional drink per day adds 11 additional breast cancer occurrences per 1000 women up to age 75. That’s nuts.
The Chinese Take
In Chinese medicine, we say that the liver stores the blood and that it helps us balance our emotions, allowing them to smoothly flow. Alcohol is usually warm or hot, depending on the type. It moves qi and blood strongly and can easily deplete someone who is stressed and not sleeping (I mean you, new parents).
When our liver becomes overtaxed it doesn’t move qi and blood as well, and it doesn’t store our blood. This means that excess estrogen is reabsorbed into the blood and continues to circulate instead of being broken down. So now we have excess yin hormones that are pathogenic, and gum up the works. These collect into pockets of damp and phlegm and can create tumors.
When the liver can’t function, qi doesn’t move. Blood needs qi to move, so it sits and stagnates eventually becoming a different type of tumor, one formed by blood stasis.
You’ve heard me say it before: protecting your Liver and Kidney systems is key to your fertility, but also your overall health. And that leads me to my final health issue, reproductive health.
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For those of you who have been around awhile, you know that I am a reproductive health nerd. Most of my acupuncture practice is with birthing people who are pregnant, delivering or recovering and their optimal health is my jam.
There are three big areas that alcohol impacts: fertility, menopause and hormone replacement therapy.
I think we have all heard at one point that alcohol negatively impacts fertility. But why?
Our endocrine system is a delicate balance of feedback loops that are triggered by hormones and neurotransmitters to keep our body in what we call, “homeostasis.” Homeostasis is a relatively stable equilibrium of constantly shifting parts. Basically, it’s the flow of yin and yang – sex hormones and stress hormones, as Dr. Claudia Welch would say.
It’s the flow back and forth from rest, digest (and reproduce) to fight, flight, and freeze.
This system is dominated by our Kidney and Liver systems. Kidney governs our growth and development, our reproductive ability and our aging. Our Liver helps our qi and blood flow to where it needs to go, keeps us relaxed and in people who menstruate, regulates that flow as well.
But alcohol depletes the Liver, leaves unmetabolized estrogens in the bloodstream and prevents it from doing its free-flowin’ job. Because of how quickly alcohol moves qi and blood, it depletes us. This makes our cycle irregular, difficult to predict, and interrupts ovulation.
The impact of alcohol on our reproductive endocrine balance is so well-documented that a 2017 study published in Fertility Research and Practice recommends that if a person is pursuing artificial reproductive technologies (ART) such as IUI and IVF, they are refused treatment until their alcohol consumption is minimized.
“Furthermore, ART should not be provided for women who are unwilling or unable to minimize their consumption of alcohol ….Those women who do undergo ART should be advised to minimize their alcohol consumption prior to initiating treatment, as even moderate amounts of alcohol may decrease their chances of a successful live birth. “Kristin Van Heertum and Brooke Rossi, Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much?, Fertility Research and Practice, 2017.
Those who aren’t using ART aren’t in the clear, though. According to Toni Weschler of Taking Charge of Your Fertility:
“Alcohol can alter estrogen and progesterone levels and has been associated with anovulation, luteal phase dysfunction and impaired implantation and blastocyst development.”Taking Charge of Your Fertility, p 214
Meaning: alcohol can negatively impact the ability to release an egg, shorten the length of time a fertilized egg has to implant, and impair the development of the egg once implanted.
Over time, if not properly supplemented by a healthy diet, alcohol consumption forces us to tap our kidney qi for support. We develop low back pain, temperature changes, and all the hallmarks of losing our cycle.
Now, I’m not saying that alcohol consumption will throw you into premature ovarian failure. What I’m saying is that the consumption of jing, or vital essence, through alcohol consumption has a direct and proven correlation to early menopause.
A 2017 Korean study found that,
“…alcohol consumption was associated with younger age at menopause. A higher AUDIT score was also related to younger age at menopause.”Relationship between alcohol consumption and age at menopause: The Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, August, 2017
*An AUDIT score is determined by the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test
To add insult to injury, the earlier menopause will be more uncomfortable, too. Years of depleting liver and kidney yin will lead to stronger hot flashes and more instances of night sweats.
Another delicate balance that can be upset by alcohol is hormone replacement therapy or HRT. The two main groups of people I’m thinking of with HRT are:
- People treating the symptoms of menopause
- People undergoing transition
HRT’s popularity for treating menopause symptoms has plummeted since studies showed an increased risk of invasive breast cancer, a doubled risk of dementia, and a significantly increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.
These are all things that alcohol also increases. Adding alcohol to HRT is just pouring vodka on the fire.
While HRT is no longer regularly recommended for menopause symptoms, it is still used for individuals undergoing transition. For these parents, they’ve talked about the risks of HRT with their endocrinologists and primary care providers but they typically aren’t warned about the use of alcohol in conjunction with their treatments.
Because of the increased load on the liver, adding another substance for it to detox is not good. Alcohol consumption can elevate transaminases, an important enzyme in protein creation. If a doctor sees elevated AST or ALT one of the first things they are instructed to ask about is alcohol consumption.
These risks apply to both transmen and transwomen, but because of the impact on estrogen metabolism, transwomen may encounter more adverse events than transmen.
Between cancer, heart disease and endocrine dysfunction you’d think we covered everything, but wait! There’s more!
- increases your risk of osteoporosis
- increases your risk of acid reflux and GERD
- increases your risk of gingivitis
- creates systemic inflammation
- impacts decision making, which may lead to regret and increased stress
- causes hangovers, which just suck
So, what’s the alternative?
I’m not going to tell you to never drink alcohol again. In fact, while that may be a healthy choice, for many of us it’s not really in the cards. But I do recommend limiting your drinking to only once per week for allllllll of the reasons listed above.
And instead of having a hard boundary of, “I can’t drink” once you’ve met your quota I recommend Ali Shapiro’s empowering pass:
It’s not in alignment with my health goals.Ali Shapiro
But here are some wine alternatives for you:
Instead of drinking red wine for cardiovascular health, consume cloudy or minimally processed juices. These juices have comparable or higher levels of the polyphenols red wine is famous for having. You can also have berries and dark chocolate!
The resveratrol in red wine doesn’t come from the alcohol, it comes from the grapes. While no studies have been done to prove that humans can get sufficient resveratrol from red wine, it is theoretically possible to get similar amounts from eating red grapes.
You can also get powerful antioxidants from other sources. Açai berries have 10 times the anthocyanins that red wine has. Yerba mate tea has more antioxidants in a cup without any of the cancer or osteoporosis risk of wine.
Create a bedtime ritual
Turning off screens an hour before bed and taking the time to settle down will prime your brain to relax. Try some moon milk, take a leisurely evening walk, meditate, or do qi gong or yoga. Find a routine that helps your brain quiet down so that your body can follow.
Hey, wait a minute
I know, we didn’t talk about one thing – why mommy wine culture has become the way moms relax. When I started this, I fully intended to have all of this in one handy, dandy blog post but as it turns out alcohol is super bad for you and there was a lot to write about.
So I divided the topic into two parts: this one which deals with the impact of alcohol in the microcosm of a person and the next one which deals with alcohol in the macrocosm of society.
Make sure to check it out – Mommy Wine Culture Part 2: A Symptom of a Bigger Problem
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Resources and links
Alcohol and Your Body – Student Outreach article by UC Santa Cruz
7 Basics to Serving Wine and Glassware – Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly
Check the smoke and mirrors section for an explanation on how alcohol can wear the liver system down
Alcohol and Fertility: How much is too much? – Fertility Research and Practice, 2017
7 Times a Woman by Lia Andrews (no longer available on Amazon)
The Infertility Cure by Randine Lewis
Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life by Dr. Claudia Welch
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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