Don’t worry, it’s mostly good news. But there are some things you should know before hitting the town.
We won’t keep you waiting here: Drinking alcohol can affect your iron levels, but only if you drink a lot. So the occasional glass of wine or pina colada during your vacation won’t put you at a major risk of anemia or iron deficiency.
Does that mean that a bottle of Merlot is 100 percent risk-free when it comes to your blood health? Absolutely not, and at the end of the day it may not be the alcohol itself that you need to worry about when it comes to your hemoglobin and iron levels.
Listen, many of us here enjoy a nice glass of wine or beer at the end of a long hard day (including those with anemia). This blog is not here to tell you that you can’t drink, but we want you to be educated about how it can impact your overall health and your anemia risk.
A Quick Note on Alcohol and Anemia Research
We want to clear one important thing up about this blog: Most of the research we’ll reference looks at people who engage in heavy or chronic alcohol consumption. What does that mean?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy alcohol use as:
- For men: Four drinks per day, or more than 14 drinks per week
- For women: Three drinks per day, or more than seven drinks per week
Chronic alcohol consumption is when someone drinks even when it interferes with their everyday life, according to The Mayo Clinic.
So again, we’re not talking about someone who enjoys the occasional pint.
If you or someone you know has an alcohol problem, you can find help by clicking here.
Alcohol’s Impact on Nutrient Absorption
A quick refresher: Our body needs iron from food to produce hemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen to our muscles. Low iron levels equals low hemoglobin, which can put you at risk for anemia symptoms including:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pains
- Pale or yellow skin
Iron, however, isn’t the only nutrient involved in this process. Our body also requires ample amounts of folate (also known as Vitamin B9) and Vitamin C to get enough oxygen (there are others, but for the purpose of this blog we’ll be focusing on these two).
One of folate’s many jobs is to help your body create new red blood cells, and if you don’t get enough of it it can put you at risk for anemia. Chronic alcohol use can get in the way of your body absorbing folate, and one study found that 80 percent of alcoholics had folate deficiencies and half of all people with alcohol-related liver diseases had anemia.
Heavy alcohol use can also impact Vitamin C absorption. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron (think of it as the key iron uses to enter your bloodstream), but heavy alcohol use can impede that process.
Alcohol and Excess Iron
Believe it or not, heavy alcohol use can actually cause excess iron levels in the body. And this is one of the few cases where even mild drinking can impact your iron levels.
The reason why is pretty complicated, but stick with us here. Your liver produces a hormone called hepcidin, and its main role is to regulate iron metabolism. That is, it makes sure your body gets the Goldilocks level of iron—not too much, not too little, but just right.
Alcohol gets right in the way of that process. Let’s say your body’s a warehouse and iron is the packages being carried in and out of it. Hepcidin, in this example, would be the inventory manager keeping track of all the boxes, and one of its jobs is to make sure the warehouse doesn’t get overwhelmed.
Enter alcohol, which distracts the manager while a truckload of ferritin (a protein that stores iron in your cells) gets delivered behind their back.
Now it should be said that, depending on your iron levels, this could be a good or bad thing. Is it a reason to order another round? Absolutely not.
The symptoms of excess iron are similar to iron deficiency, and include:
- Joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of sex drive
- Heart failure
- Liver failure
- Bronze or gray skin color
- Memory fog
Excess iron can also lead to liver disease.
It’s Not Just the Alcohol
There are other factors other than the drink itself to take into consideration when it comes to alcohol and your health. To put it bluntly, we don’t generally make the best decision after a few rounds.
Alcohol can cause you to make poor dietary choices (you’re probably not going to go for iron-rich foods for your late night snack), and make you more of a daredevil than you would be otherwise.
If you’re going for a mixed drink, you may also want to consider how the added sugar may impact your health. High blood sugar levels have been shown to increase your anemia risk.
We can’t repeat this enough: One drink will not put you at a major risk of anemia or iron deficiency. But that’s a general rule, and everyone reacts differently.
To help put your mind at ease, check your hemoglobin levels before you hit the town by using AnemoCheck. You can also use it the morning after to see if and how drinking impacted your overall iron and hemoglobin levels.