The Hunter-Gatherer Diet Debate
Of course cavemen weren’t drinking alcohol.
Why, though? Not because the grains, fruits (i.e grapes), spices and plants weren’t available (because they absolutely were), but because they hadn’t yet worked out how to harness the natural process of fermentation. We’ve written about Fermentation in the context of fermented vegetables on our All About Fermentation page. There, we were at pains to make the point that it is unlikely that hunter-gatherers were intentionally waiting around to actively ferment vegetables – and nor was it necessary, because the ability to preserve foodstuffs through refrigeration was not yet possible. This mean that natural decay was common – and plant matter that was found was not always fresh. Fermentation is simply the natural process of degradation.
When it comes to fermented vegetables we are actively seeking to add bacteria to a modern gut microbiome which may be depleted or lacking diversity. Hunter-gatherers had no need to do this either, as they were much less sanitary and clean. Their microbiome was typically well populated by the bugs and bacteria that they lived alongside on a minute-by-minute basis – simply because they rarely washed anything clean.
And yet, insisting that fermenting fruits was a common side-effect of being a hunter-gatherer so Alcohol is allowed is a little far-fetched…
Or is it?
Have you ever left orange juice in the fridge too long until it starts to fizz slightly? Congratulations, you just made a fermented orange drink. Disgusting, yes. But you were, in a small way fermenting fruit to create a (primitive) alcohol. It is possible these ‘accidents’ led to the exploration of producing alcohol… And the weird thing is that it seems animals (always remember humans are animals) seem to have a tendency to seek out rotting fruit.
There have been studies showing how various different animal species including dogs and other mammals still get stinking drunk (literally ‘drunk’ – swaying and sleepy) simply by waiting for overripe fruit that has fallen from trees to ferment and produce natural alcohols. Note that they don’t eat the fruit as soon as it has fallen. Instead they let it go slightly ‘bad’.
What on earth are they doing? And what is the evolutionary advantage (OK – is there any evolutionary advantage or adaptation) to drinking alcohol?
The Genetics & Evolution of Alcohol
Alcohol is a toxin, in the strict definition of the word: it is a product produced by a living cell which creates adverse effects on human biochemistry and is capable of causing disease. It is able to alter brain neurotransmitter function, it cannot be ‘used’ by the body and must be processed out of the body via the liver and into the secretory fluids in order to be eliminated.
Clearly, therefore, alcohol has a dark side. It is not a ‘healthful’ ingredient and cannot fall on our ‘Healthful Nutrition’ lists. But does it also have a ‘good side’? And are all humans equally susceptible to the toxicity of alcohol. Moreover, have we evolved alongside it to tolerate it, providing it is consumed in appropriate doses? This latter concept is important – because it could be argued that everything can be toxic in the wrong doses… is alcohol just one of the substances that consumed in moderation is at worst, benign – and at best, beneficial?
In terms of ‘digestion’, the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme which allows us to break down the compounds of alcohol found in all beverages (however mild their percentage) is produced by a specific gene. This gene dates back roughly 2 million years. And for those of you who are up on your ‘evolutionary’ timelines, that puts this gene as being present in mammals that predate primates. So anthropologically, it would seem that we (as humans) have always had the ability to break down alcohol…
Hang on a moment though – we can’t have evolved a gene to break down a substance that didn’t really exist yet – no matter what your belief about Darwinian evolution, evolving to adapt to a condition that isn’t occurring is biologically implausible, if not impossible…
So instead, scientists theorise that this gene isn’t actually a byproduct of the presence of alcohol in the environment. Instead, it is believed that this gene actually senses the ripeness of fruit – remembering that fermentation is basically over-ripening things.
Therefore, our affinity and desire for alcohol may not simply be linked to its soporific, inhibition lowering psychological impacts, or its social value. Instead, it is highly possible that this gene was designed to allow us to seek out and consume only the ripest of fruits. In terms of plant biology, ripeness doesn’t just indicate sweetness – it denotes caloric density. Much like our affinity for over-sweetened foods – it appears that the appeal of alcohol lies in the fact that fermented and overripe fruit always gave us the biggest bang for our buck in terms of food acquisition.
And we’ve had the ability to break down and process alcohol literally for longer than humans have been human.
But modern alcohol is far from just fermented fruit.
Alcohol is not drunk because we are starving and seeking adequate calorie sources. Instead, it is concentrated, commoditised and the development of agriculture has diversified this substance and created a whole world of beverages from the fermentation and distillation processes. Modern alcohol is so diverse that several aisles of supermarkets can be devoted to it. This is hardly reminiscent of the scarcity of ripe fruits. Moreover, modern drinking habits (which are relevant when analysed alongside the metabolic and toxicity of the substance itself) are founded upon social and societal norms.
We drink to relax, we drink to have fun, we drink to let our guard down and relieve stress. We drink to feel better and let go of tension. And sometimes we drink simply because we can’t not.
None of these reasons for consuming alcohol might be ‘approved’ of – but they are real reflections of the motivation for drinking in modern culture. So whilst ancient hunter-gatherers may have been honed to seek the fermented fruits, they certainly weren’t seeking them in order to chill out with their mates. Consumed in the ‘modern’ way, is alcohol toxic, poisonous and damaging?
The Biology of Booze
Studies show that small amounts of alcohol are both healthy and unhealthy, dependent on the population and/or conditions in which it is evaluated and the type of alcohol being tested. Perhaps the most famous studies showing benefits of alcohol are on red wine – basically because the alcohol in this case is distilled from a fruit which is already rich in polyphenols, plant compounds which are incredibly good for you. It is worth noting here that the benefit comes from the polyphenol of the plant being concentrated – not because the result is alcohol. Hence grape juice is often thought of as almost as beneficial as red wine.
In fact, grape juice is probably a better bet than most modern wines, because the commercialisation of wine manufacture has meant that sulphites and other chemicals are now added to the finished products to encourage shelf stability. The result is not a pure fermented grape alcohol – it’s often filled with additional compounds known to be poorly tolerated by humans in any case. If the beverage is not organic you also have the added consideration of the pesticides and chemicals that were used on the crops from which the alcohol was made.
Beyond grapes which make wine there are distilled alcohols of vodka, bourbon and whisky. These are often derived from grains (wheat, corn, or rye in the case of bourbon). Whilst the resulting alcohols do become theoretically gluten free (hence they would be normally classed as Paleo), there are plenty of individuals with Coeliac Disease and gluten sensitivity who experience challenges with these spirits.
Over and above potential gluten reactivity and the questionable ‘other ingredients’ in Alcohol, Alcohol itself has another intriguing effect on health due to the fact that it inhibits an enzyme called Diamine Oxidase. This enzyme breaks down a substance called histamine, of which you may have heard. Histamine is involved in the flushing, swelling and allergic reactions to everything from hay fever to insect bites but it is also released every time you eat anything, every time you come into contact with something your immune system has to ‘check’ – and even works locally in the brain as a neurotransmitter that promotes wakefulness. It is the front line of defence against potential threats, but it comes at a cost – it causes slight inflammation.
By inhibiting the DAO enzyme, Alcohol has the net effect of increasing the level of histamine in the body (sometimes ‘red wine headaches’ are associated with this histamine-type flushing). Whilst an occasional excess of histamine caused by this chain reaction will not incur any lasting damage, an excess of histamine with insufficient ability to metabolise it over a long period of time and/or on a daily basis will eventually lead to excess inflammation, the lead domino in the development of many health conditions.
A Question of Quantity – And The Health Benefits Which Are More Than Just Biochemical
It must be stressed that here we are listing the negative effects of Alcohol. As with many elements of nutrition, every damaging result that can occur after consuming Alcohol is to do with the frequency and the quantity in which it is consumed.
In small amounts, or infrequently consumed, Alcohol can confer health benefits. Yes, these benefits are biochemical – but they’re not just about the body… they’re about the human experience, which should never be ignored when assessing foodstuffs or substances which can alter behaviour and/or affect brain chemistry.
Alcohol would not meet the “Healthful Nutrition” criteria of containing more nutrients that anti-nutrients. Even red wine with its numerous polyphenols is not enough of a nutritional powerhouse to justify that. But there is a real argument to be made that Alcohol is part of an overall Healthful Life. Perhaps it is not strictly Paleo – and due to its impact on the gastrointestinal tract and the dysregulation of hormones and neurotransmitters it would never be classed as allowed on AIP – but Alcohol can be an important tool in living healthfully.
Whether you like it or not, Alcohol is a social norm. You can choose to avoid this norm and stay confident in your social interactions without Alcohol – and that is a personal choice and right. However, many people struggle with the anxieties that accompany social settings and also struggle with feeling as if they are the ‘odd one out’ from their friends circle if they don’t drink. Whilst you should never feel obligated or pressured into consuming something just to ‘fit in’, there is a validity to the argument that pleasure is a mandatory part of being a happy and healthy human being. If Alcohol is part of your enjoyment then there is no reason why, in sensible quantities, this can’t be part of the overall picture of constructing a healthful lifestyle for you.
And nobody can or should judge anyone for wanting Alcohol in this type of situation. Every foodstuff has a chemical effect on our body which we are seeking – and Alcohol is no exception. Its effects may be greater and more immediately felt, and yet desiring Alcohol is – as we have shown above – a perfectly natural evolutionary preference for using natural substances to enhance the biochemistry of what it means to be a human being.
No-one would suggest that a hardcore drinking habit or only being able to socialise and enjoy yourself after an Alcoholic beverage is an appropriate life-strategy. No matter how much you drink, your liver is going to have to metabolise it out of your system. This is an energetic drain on the body. Additionally your gut will still have the impact of Alcohol on the tight junctions of the gastrointestinal tract, which it can make a little lax for a while. This will need to be repaired which is another drain on the body. And nobody is suggesting that having a relationship with Alcohol which is one of dependency – where the drive to consume it is one of need rather than desire – is healthy.
And yet, Alcohol is no different to certain other reintroductions in that it should be viewed neutrally and experimented with on a personal and individual basis. It is not necessary for health, but it might be desired for pleasure. In the healthy, Alcohol consumption will still have health consequences but these may be recovered from more easily. Consuming Alcohol – along with many of the other substances listed on this website – will take more of a toll on the ill or inflamed.
It is this equation that must be evaluated when you choose to consume Alcohol. After a period of healing (using a Paleo diet, for example) it may very well be that part of your reintroductions will be Alcohol – and we cover how to do this on our Paleo Reintroductions Page.
But if you have had longterm health problems then you are dealing with a body that requires healing. Adding Alcohol into the mix is to add something that your body needs to deal with, not something your body can use to heal with. In this way, the benefits you get from consuming it (mostly emotional and social) must be weighed against any potential consequences or costs of consumption on your body and your overall health aims.
So perhaps Alcohol isn’t Paleo in the strictest sense of the word. But Modern Paleo diets are built on a realistic assessment of the holistic nature of foodstuffs on our whole being. Viewed in this way, Alcohol may very well be part of a health picture – but whether that is true for you requires evaluating a) your current health status, b) your current health goals and c) your real ‘why’ for reaching for the Alcoholic drink.