Alcohol and Ayurveda

I heard a news piece on NPR this morning about how the newest cocktails trends are….not drinking them!

But fads and trends are not the reasons to consider your alcohol consumption. Most wellness sources widely consider alcohol to be a toxin that (like any substance) imposes negative impacts on our health when consumed in excess. But classic Ayurvedic texts also tell us that our emotional, physical, and psychological states as well as our age, digestive strength, time of day, and season of the year are the true indicators of the impact alcohol has on the body and our well-being. Anything consumed, used, or enjoyed in excess will have a negative impact on our health (ex: over-training, too much yoga, too much sleep, too much kombucha.) But if we honor the opposites and consume and enjoy in balance, then anything ANYTHING becomes a kind of medicine.

Ayurveda and the effects of alcohol

Wherever ideas of relaxation and unwinding go, whether it’s out with friends on a Saturday night, to gatherings with friends during the holidays or to the poolside on that tropical vacation you’ve been longing to take, visions of a tall, refreshing adult beverage seem to follow. But the actual impact that alcohol has on our body, mind, emotional and spiritual state is quite different than that which we’ve come to associate with “letting our hair down.”

According to Ayurveda, alcohol’s properties are drying, heating, rough, light, and sharp. These qualities most quickly impact the heart and mind, and influence the gunas (or qualities) that make up our doshas (or constitution.) Put another way, alcohol quickly permeates our physical state of being, creating a dry, hot, rough and ungrounded environment in the body. Biologically and scientifically speaking, we see a spike in the resting heart rate, body temperature, experience digestive upset (even on a low level,) and struggle with a change of pH in the system. Ayurvedically speaking, alcohol detracts from our Ojas (or the subtle life force) in our body that bolsters our mental and physical radiance, ultimately detracting from our ability to feel and perform at our peak. Over time, regular alcohol consumption leads to a sense of dullness, agitation, decreased health, and emotional depletion — which are quite the opposite outcomes from that which we associate with a casual drink or night out with friends.

Ayurveda emphasizes that the effects of alcohol impact not only our physical health but also our emotional and spiritual state. Ayurvedic philosophy outlines the intricate ways in which the body, mind, spirit, and external environment are intimately connected; we cannot achieve states of tranquility and wellness unless our minds are stable and harmonized in the system. But the heating and drying effects of alcohol detract from this harmony by increasing rajas – qualities of unrest, chaos, anger, and agitation in the mind. Simultaneously, alcohol has a dulling effect that exacerbates tamas – the qualities of sluggishness and stagnation. Too much alcohol, therefore, clouds our clarity, and increases impulses of anger, violence, or fear in ways that don’t bolster our well-being. Again, the opposite of those feel-good vibes we often associate with a relaxing drink with friends!

In a nutshell, alcohol consumption has a drying, heating, and agitating effect on our bodies, minds and emotional well-being states.

Finding the balance with alcohol

Knowing the negative impacts of alcohol consumption, it can be difficult to imagine that there would be any positive impact from this substance that most of us enjoy consuming — even in moderation. Fo those of us interested in preserving our well-being, performing at our peak AND enjoying our vibrant lives, Ayurveda has some great news:

Any substance can be used as medicine once we understand and honor its qualities. And this includes alcohol.

Alcohol consumption WITHOUT understanding or honoring it’s qualities and impact on our well-being is largely disruptive to our well-being. But, there are occasions when our bodies can effectively and adequately support the consumption of alcohol. By maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, practicing good sleep hygiene, getting adequate rest, and consuming alcohol in positive emotional states are all actions that support the consumption of alcohol in moderation without significant disruption of well-being. Understanding how age, overall health (including dosha, prakruti and vikruti,) and associated individual risk factors also help us to better understand the conditions where we can drink alcohol with fewer well-being setbacks, and knowing when to refrain all together. Just as a child on a sugar high will be negatively impacted by the fourth piece of cake at 10 pm, so too will a full-grown adult who is experiencing digestive distress, has been overtraining, under-resting and is on their 4th glass of wine.

When you’re feeling sluggish after a long day of stressful work, when you’re wanting to let off steam after a frustrating encounter with a co-worker, or when you’re feeling down and gloomy about a race result are not great times for having a cocktail or four. The dulling, heating and stimulating effects of alcohol will only amplify these states of being, making it challenging for you to recover mentally, emotionally, and physically. But, enjoying a social drink with friends might be just the treat to lift your mood if you’re in a positive emotional mindset, your physical state of being is balanced (and if you’re also consuming plenty of food and water.)

We can use our understanding of dosha to determine how alcohol will impact us, and which kinds of alcohol will be the least detrimental to our well-being:

Ayurvedic alternatives to alcohol

Giving yourself an oil massage or drinking a mug of warm milk doesn’t *exactly* compare to the experience of enjoying a cocktail out with friends, but if you find yourself drinking to smooth over emotions or stress, Ayurveda has some exceptional suggestions for how to actually balance your well-being (so that you can get back to having that drink with friends for fun ASAP.)