Q: I drink alcohol regularly. Are there any healthy activities I can do to counteract its harms?
A: Despite past claims to the contrary, the current evidence makes it pretty clear that even a little alcohol is bad for your health — with links to certain types of cancer, cardiovascular conditions, liver disease and other concerns.
But drinking can still be part of a healthy lifestyle if done in moderation, said Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — meaning no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
There’s no surefire way to offset the consequences of alcohol, said Mariann Piano, a professor and researcher at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing who studies the effects of alcohol use. It’s not like you can “run around the block one more time” to negate a night of heavy drinking, she said.
If you do drink, though, it may be particularly important to prioritize other aspects of your health.
Support your immune system
Excess alcohol can suppress the immune system, weakening the body’s defenses against infections. So people who drink may want to take steps to keep their immune systems functioning well, Rimm said.
That includes working out regularly. The link between exercise and immunity is challenging to study, but researchers have long observed that people who are fit and physically active seem to develop fewer respiratory tract infections. And when they do get sick, their illnesses tend to be less severe.
In one 2011 study that looked at about 1,000 adults in North Carolina, for instance, researchers found that those who exercised five or more days a week were 43% less likely to be sick with an upper respiratory tract infection over a 12-week period than those who were largely sedentary.
Keep in mind, though, that exercise is not a guaranteed way to mitigate the harmful effects of drinking, Piano said.
Another critical component of a healthy immune system is getting adequate sleep — which may be especially challenging for those who drink, since alcohol is a notorious sleep interrupter.
To get sufficient rest after a night of drinking, give yourself several hours of buffer time between drinking and going to bed, said Aric Prather, a sleep specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. The lower the concentration of alcohol in your blood at bedtime, the less disruptive it’ll be.
Opting for lower-alcohol beverages while you’re out, like a 4% beer instead of a strong mixed drink, is also helpful, he said.
A healthy diet can also help promote your overall health — and potentially lower your risk of developing some of the conditions linked to alcohol consumption, like certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
David Streem, a psychiatrist who specializes in treatment for alcohol-related issues at the Cleveland Clinic, said that the Mediterranean diet — with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and fish — is widely considered the “gold standard” for healthy eating.
Alcoholic beverages can also be high in calories, especially if they’re sugary cocktails like margaritas or piña coladas, Rimm said, so you may want to be mindful of how the extra calories from booze fit into your overall calorie allotment for the day.
And drinking can lead to poor food choices, Streem added. A weekly beer after work with friends probably won’t affect your health much, he said.
“But if that one beer is always accompanied by a 12-ounce steak or a huge plate of nachos,” the consequences of unhealthy eating could potentially add up over time to be more detrimental to your health than the alcohol itself, he said.
Get your annual checkup
It’s essential to see a doctor at least once a year for a regular checkup, Rimm said, and to be honest about how much you drink. If it’s more than a moderate amount, a physician might recommend additional blood tests, like those that assesses whether your liver enzymes or blood sugar levels are within a healthy range.
Starting preventive screenings at the recommended ages, like colonoscopies at 45 and mammograms at 40, might be especially important if you drink, Rimm said, since alcohol is a risk factor for colorectal and breast cancers.
Being more intentional about when and why you choose to imbibe can encourage you to consume less alcohol, said Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health.
With a mindful drinking approach, you can pay attention to how alcohol makes you feel, both in the moment and the day after. What does alcohol offer you? What does it take away?
By observing the motivations behind your desire to drink, you can begin to evaluate whether you might benefit from scaling back, she said. To do that, try easing into it by having one less drink a night than you normally would have, Gallagher suggested.
“Getting a little more engaged with the pros and cons and making mindful decisions, being aware, making small adjustments over time” can be really effective at ushering in a balanced relationship with alcohol, she said.