by | May 29, 2020 | 12 comments

This is an interesting topic, and one that I think would benefit from further discussion. Some people consider that alcohol free wines and beers helped them immensely to quit drinking, others avoid them as completely as they do the full alcohol versions. There are a few points to make.

The first point to make is that many alcohol free beers and wines aren’t alcohol free at all. In the US a beer can be classed as ‘alcohol free’ if it has 0.5% or less alcohol in it. In the UK it is 0.05%. This causes two issues.

The first is the slippery slope point. If you have a genuinely alcohol free beer, then why not have a 0.05% one, then a 0.5% one? There are also low alcohol varieties (circa 2%). So where do you draw the line? Aren’t you just back on the same slippery slope you were on when you last decided you could moderate and have the odd drink every now and then?

Secondly there is a physiological issue. Alcohol withdrawal is when your brain reacts to the depressive effects of the alcohol, in essence it becomes hyper sensitive so that it can still function whilst under the sedating effects of the alcohol. When the alcohol wears off you are left overly sensitive, which leads to anxiety, insomnia and, in more extreme cases, shaking and depression. When you take your first drink of the day this will cause a spike in the alcohol level in your bloodstream. This is the trigger to your brain to start to the recalibration process and become more sensitive, and it will recalibrate to the amount you usually drink.

So if you usually drink two glasses of wine in an evening, that first spike in your blood alcohol level causes your brain to start recalibrating for the amount of alcohol in 2 glasses of wine. If you usually drink 2 bottles of spirits, then this first drink and the resulting spike in blood alcohol will cause your brain to start recalibrating for the alcohol in two bottles of spirits. This is why it is incredibly hard to moderate or reduce your alcohol intake, and so phenomenally easy to increase it. The withdrawal is decidedly unpleasant and the natural tendency is to relieve it and not suffer it. So when you take that first drink, you are in essence committing to have to drink at least your usual amount, if not more.

So when we quit drinking we need to avoid anything that causes a jump in our blood alcohol content that is pronounced enough to engage the physical withdrawal. It isn’t the case that we have to avoid any alcohol at all; many foods contain trace mounts of alcohol and yeasts and bacteria in our digestive system themselves excrete alcohol which results in trace levels of alcohol in our blood. So trace amounts of alcohol in our blood isn’t the problem, but a sudden spike in alcohol levels can be.

So the question we need to address is; can the small amounts of alcohol in these ‘alcohol free’ beers cause a physiological reaction?

This is something that it is simply impossible to give an answer to because alcoholic drinks affect different individuals in different ways. A 90lb female was hasn’t eaten for 3 days and has just been for a 30 mile run is going to have a very different experience when drinking an alcoholic drink than a male 400lb body builder who’s just eaten 3 large pizzas and who hasn’t moved from his sofa for 3 days. Sex, weight, muscle mass, exercise, metabolism, amount of food currently inside us, all affect the speed in which the alcohol from a drink is absorbed into the bloodstream. It is simply impossible to say what level of alcohol any individual can safely drink without triggering a physiological reaction.

The confusion, unfortunately, is exacerbated because there are studies showing that even fully alcohol free beers can trigger a physiological reaction in previously heavy drinkers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3717546/). This is as expected if you think about it, after all the human brain cannot differentiate between something imagined and something real. If you watch a film with a scary part in it, you will find your heart rate accelerating which is your bodies physiological reaction to perceived danger. This is no different in principle to anticipating having a drink. This again must vary from individual and will depend on the degree to which they have been conditioned to associate a certain situation or flavour with alcohol.

So I’m afraid it is impossible to give any firm guidance on this topic. Many people do drink alcohol ‘free’ drinks and have no problem with them. I myself have drunk them numerous times, both the fully alcohol free options (like Bavaria) and those that are technically alcohol ‘free’ even though they still do contain alcohol. Quite recently I drank a bottle of an alcohol ‘free’ beer that was 0.5% alcohol and felt quite anxious the next day. This anxiety may have been completely unrelated to that beer, or it may have been a direct consequence of it. Either way I’ve solved the problem because I’m not going to drink anything that has 0.5% alcohol in it again. And this I think is the best advice anyone can give on this topic, which is that if you aren’t 100% happy or have any doubts at all then DON’T DRINK IT! It really is that simple. There’s absolutely no reason to drink a drink with trace amounts of alcohol in it if you don’t want to, and equally there is no reason to drink wine or beer even if it has no alcohol in it at all. Just as you don’t need alcohol to enjoy and live your life, neither do you need alcohol free beers or wines to do so either.

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12 Comments

  1. Will

    I believe even Orange juice can have 0.5% alcohol in it, and the 0.5% alcohol is the maximum, many will be quite a lot less. Is that correct

    Reply
  2. Daniel Boyle

    A thought provoking subject. I remember once drinking 5 bottles of becks blue in a pub because I was driving, and upon leaving the pub actually felt quite pissed and unsure of whether to drive or not! Obviously all in the mind though.

    Reply
  3. LizW

    I’ve completely avoided any alcohol free drinks or even drinks that are sold as alcohol alternatives like Nosecco etc. I stuck with bitter drinks like grapefruit and lemonade or tonic water when I was first giving up and now I just drink squash ? I don’t drink them in wine glasses either, just a regular tumbler. I don’t want to drink so why pretend that I am…

    Reply
    • Steve

      Totally agree with grapefruit and lemonade.. I freshly juice the grapefruit, which sounds a bit of a faff; but it kind of feels a bit more special that way!

      Reply
  4. Ed

    It’s not just the alcohol. With NA beer the removal process does not get rid of the congeners (which includes nasty stuff like methanol traces) which contribute to worse observed hangovers with darker drinks. I stopped drinking all NA beers, even the 0.0% ones, and feel so much better. Also most of them contain lots of sugar. They were useful at the beginning for mild craving relief but now I make my own ginger-cordial based soft drinks,

    Reply
  5. Sheri Henley

    Thank you for the thought provoking topic! I will drink the occasional NA beer, but I don’t find it triggers me. I try to be very cognizant of my triggers.

    Reply
  6. Mary

    This is a validating perspective, and it does show how the physiology connects with the mind. When I first stopped drinking I made sparkling drinks with soda or sparkling water with juices and herbs. I decided that I wouldn’t enter a liquor store, nor look on the supermarket shelves for anything that resembled alcohol. I had to remove visual triggers. The gassy drinks helped initially because I satiated the feeling to have a drink, but i got sick of preparing them, scoffing them down in minutes. Eventually you have to go through a stage of removing the association of having a drink, whether it be an alcohol or a non alcohol drink. When I’m thirsty I drink water, when I need a warm drink to relax and calm down I have a herbal tea and I have a coffee in the morning. Last night I met with friends for our first post iso get together. While they pulled out their drinks constantly chatting away, I got my bathers on and jumped in the spa with the children. I get bored with these party conversations now and I’m not resentful. I now need to do more. That’s been my healing. And I think the association of alcohol with these get togethers has skewed the way we socialise. I’m still working things out in my mind but I’m finding catching up with friends to be tedious these days and noticing more and more the huge focus on alcohol. So, I agree with the point you make that to the mind alcohol or non alcohol are connected. Sorry if my response is off point.

    Reply
  7. Lucy B

    I have drunk alcohol free beer and I felt kissed and had a hang over… So now I avoid. Just like, as a vegetarian I don’t want to eat fake sausage rolls… Or fake mince…. why would I??
    This is another reason I get annoyed, stop putting stevia in supplements to make them sweeter… let’s just get used to the taste of not so sweet…. #rantover

    Reply
    • Mary

      Great point Lucy. The idea extends to so many commercial fake substitutions.

      Reply
  8. Izzy

    Such a thought provoking point, especially considering I have recently purchased some Beck’s Blue. I niavely assumed AF meant zero A content! The idea being I could have one when my husband was opening the wine bottle, to prevent me having that first glass which inevitably leads to many more. I do see ditching the drink for me as a process, I’m not there but I’m working towards it, stuff is becoming clearer as I go along and I am learning to accept many realities. I believe the final reality will be just stopping without trying to cushion the stopping.

    Reply
  9. John

    I really enjoy AF beer and happy to have up to 0.5%. I only normally have one or two and it’s enough and they do not trigger me. But as my length of sobriety has lengthened I find myself drinking less of them but they were for me a great tool in the early days.

    Reply
  10. Steve

    The difference for me, is after a couple I can stop. It does worry me, as a couple of can’s on 0.5% would be the same as 1/4 can of 4% but it doesn’t seem to trigger me. I genuinely believe I like the taste of beer, rather than it ‘just’ being an excuse to drink alcohol. I’ve tried the no alcohol wine everything I’ve tried is disgusting.

    Reply

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