Is Drinking Alcohol Healthy Or Dangerous?

by | Jul 23, 2012
Rocket Bar Wine

Photo by Mr. T in DC

“I’ve always wondered what the scientific perspective of alcohol consumption is. I have been doing some research but the actual effects of it on the body range from beneficial to cancerous.”

The clinical science on alcohol consumption is vast and diverse. It’s easy to find studies that demonstrate the benefits of alcohol, but it is equally common to find research showing its dangers. Sorting through the data is not trivial, and getting the right answer from news reports is virtually impossible.

Let’s start with the facts:

1. Alcohol is addictive

Alcohol addiction is one of the most well-understood and dangerous risks of drinking. A propensity for addiction can run in families, but can affect anyone who drinks in excess. None of the health benefits of alcohol can negate the destruction caused by addiction, and anyone who drinks should be careful to avoid this terrible condition.

2. Alcohol damages the liver

Alcohol metabolism occurs in the liver and can cause severe damage when consumed in large quantities. Liver damage can usually be reversed if alcohol consumption stops.

3. Alcohol is associated with breast cancer (sort of)

Drinking is weakly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. This is likely because alcohol increases aromatase activity in the human body, which increases estrogen production. Estrogen imbalance is a known cause of breast cancer. However, the association between drinking and breast cancer is negated by sufficient folate intake. Folate or folic acid is a B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, fruits and legumes (and fortified foods). In other words, a healthy diet protects against alcohol induced breast cancer risk.

4. Alcohol protects against mortality from heart disease

Drinking alcohol reduces your risk of dying from a heart attack by preventing blood clotting. This effect is not limited to red wine, all spirits elicit substantial protection. The association appears to be dose-dependent, meaning that the more you drink the more protection you get. HOWEVER, you start raising your risk for the above mentioned problems with every additional drink per day. For men the ideal dosage is 2 drinks per day, for women it is 1 drink per day.

5. Alcohol raises good HDL cholesterol

Moderate drinking also reduces your risk of getting heart disease in the first place by raising beneficial HDL cholesterol without raising LDL cholesterol. Low HDL is a serious problem in America, and alcohol could be a significant benefit for some people. Here are other ways to raise your HDL cholesterol.

6. Red wine may slow aging

Aging research has been revolutionized by the discovery of a compound in red wine called resveratrol. Resveratrol has been shown to slow aging substantially in several model organisms. Though the effect in humans is still unknown, red wine is associated with many benefits that seem to go above and beyond the benefits of alcohol in general.

7. Red wine may protect against Alzheimer’s disease

Several studies have shown that red wine is associated with a decreased risk for Alzheimer’s Dementia, a devastating neurodegenerative disease that affects 1 in 4 people over the age of 90. The mechanism of action is unclear, but the benefits may be linked to the effect of red wine on fatty acids in the blood (raising the good stuff), or by slowing the aging process itself.

8. Alcohol causes accidents and behavioral problems

Even relatively safe levels of drinking can be deadly when combined with poor decision making. If you do choose to drink alcohol, always be sure that you’re in a safe environment and can get help if you need it. Being safe sometimes, or even usually, is simply not good enough.

There are plenty of good reasons to avoid alcohol if you choose, and many of the benefits can be garnered by simply increasing the amount or intensity of your daily physical activity.

However, the evidence is pretty clear that moderate alcohol consumption (1-2 drinks per day) can improve health and may be an important component of a healthy lifestyle. This is even true for those who pick up the habit later in life.

And last but certainly not least, some of the best times of my life have been over a drink with friends. And I guarantee you most of us aren’t thinking about our heart health while enjoying a great bottle of wine. As long as you consider safety first, never forget that smiling is one of the healthiest things you will ever do.

Here’s a fun question: what’s your favorite drink??

Originally published July 28, 2010.

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40 Responses to “Is Drinking Alcohol Healthy Or Dangerous?”

  1. As someone who enjoys a drink or 3 with friends on a weekly basis, I love this post. :)

    My favorite drink (I live in the hot, humid south at the beach) is an ice cold draft beer. It’s the only thing that quenches thirst on the really hot days. I also love a good glass of wine or a fruity drink on occasion as well. :)

  2. Anna says:

    Thanks for the post Darya, that was very helpful!

  3. E. Foley says:

    I love wine, especially riesling, gruner veltliner, and jammy reds.

    For hard liquor, I’m a fan of Captain & Coke, Vodka Cranberry, White Russians, Mojitos. After a certain incident, I no longer drink Hurricanes. ;-)

  4. Tyler says:

    Depends on the occasion and especially the season.

    Hot summer day, an ice cold lager, pilsner or any lighter beer will do the trick.

    Winter or a nightcap, its got to be a high quality single-malt Scotch Whiskey. Straight or with a few drops of water.

  5. Natalie says:

    Great and informative post! My favorite drink is a perfect Manhattan – especially if it’s made right! For summer pool parties, gotta go with Bobby Flay’s Mojito Limeade, hands down!

  6. Everything in moderation. My favorite is a glass of Pinot Noir. Oh, how I could go for that right now as I stare my second trimester in the face! The real controversial question is: Is drinking alcohol while pregnant as much of a no-no as we’re led to believe?

  7. Convinced me! I’m ready for happy hour now!

  8. Mishel Fletcher says:

    Great and informative post, thanks for netting out all the (somewhat contradictory) studies we’ve seen in the news lately. I’m partial to GSM blends from the Rhone and am hoping that will help prevent Alzheimers when I’m older!

  9. Deb says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for posting this. I think the answer is Yes.

    Alcohol in moderation may be beneficial to health, and most people can safely consume alcohol in moderation with no problems. But on the other hand for some people it is quite dangerous. You say, “anyone who drinks should be careful to avoid this terrible condition.” The problem is that for some individuals drinking with care to avoid the condition is not an option, because from the time they take their first drink of alcohol, their body reacts differently to it. They are born with a predisposition to alcoholism. Once they cross a certain threshold in their alcoholic consumption, they will increasingly lose control.

    For them alcoholism is a progressive, chronic, fatal condition. In regard to liver damage, it may be reversible, but only in the early stages. Cirrhosis of the Liver is a very serious and fatal disease. Cancer of the Esophagus is another disease that is also frequently linked to alcoholism. Alcoholism in the advanced stages can cause serious brain damage as well.

    In regards to the beneficial effects of alcohol, such as the resveratrol from red wine, that is available as an extract in nutritional supplements.

    8. Alcohol causes accidents and behavioral problems– such as fatal crashes, domestic violence, rape and other violent crimes.

    My favorite drink is green tea.

    • Caiti says:

      While I can appreciate the occasional drink at a party with some friends once in awhile, I have to agree with this post. Some people should never drink, and even just one or two is too much for them, because one or two turns into more. My biological father was an alcoholic and was useless to my mother, myself, my brother and everyone else. Alcohol ruined his life. My current boyfriend is heading down the same path and I am afraid I just cannot keep him in my life, because I do not want him to become the same father to my future kids as my father was to me. Since I met him I have stopped partying almost all of the time and have been so turned off by alcohol. I am not partial to its benefits because of the many other rich benefits all other whole foods and even supplements can offer. Green and black tea is a favorite of mine as well :)

  10. Joan Nova says:

    My favorite is a good quality medium body red wine, perhaps a Malbec. I try to limit it to 1 per day (a sip while cooking and the rest with dinner).

  11. Emmy says:

    oooh ace post! Hard choice RE: the drinks though. I LOVE vodka lime and soda (water) on a hot day, a glass of pinot grigio with a girlfriend after a long day at work and an amaretto sour (which apparently has more sugar than a snickers bar!) on a special occasion. Although googling the sugar content has ruined them a bit for me :(.

    I think the interesting thing about alcohol is that a lot of the damage relating to alcohol abuse only actually occurs at a considerable stage above the recommended daily maximum of 1-2 drinks per day… however I guess they set the recommended max so low, assuming most people with stretch it anyway. What is really taxing though is drinking more than the equivalent of one unit per hour or so – I think thats the agreed rate at which your liver can process alcohol and anything above that is EXTREMELY taxing on your body. Alternate your drinks with water and give your liver 3-4 days off a week!

    Love your comment about meeting up with friends and smiling! SO important. Ive given up alcohol for a month or so a few times and I do feel better altogether it must be said. However, so long as you arent drinking more than your body can process (or not doing it at all often anyway :) ) and you arent drinking more than a small glass of wine on your own, I figure the whole social aspect of alcohol really weighs in its favour. I live in the UK so whenever I want to go for a drink, I walk to whatever bar/pub/ cafe I need to, spend time laughing with friends and then walk home – much healthier overall than a night with the TV and some comfort pizza/pasta no?

    Whats your favorite drink Darya?

  12. Peggy says:

    Great post and quite informative! Definitely would say that an ice cold beer always hits the spot, especially on these hot summer days we’re having!

  13. George G. says:

    As I am a youngster, I can’t and don’t drink alcohol. But its effects on GABA and Glutamate receptors in our brains scares the crap out of me. The July/August issue of DISCOVER has a really cool story in the “Vital Signs” column about this. But it definitely seems that the effect of alcohol from wine is much lower than that of beer/liquor in the brain. I’m not smart enough to figure out why, though, but it’s definitely interesting and shows that pretty much everything has benefits and downsides.

  14. Chantal says:

    This is really interesting! I no longer drink – I have not had a drink for 18 months now. (My outlook is that I have had 20 years of drinking in excess, I will have 20 years of sobriety – and I plan to drink again on my 60th birthday – I would prefer in moderation!)
    I have noticed some very intersting changes that have occurred since my abstinence:
    For one – my memory is shot! Specifically regarding people’s names. Considering that red wine was one of my preferred drinks I now understand why.
    Secondly – I have aged very quickly over the past year and a half. I have also lost quite a bit of weight, which has obviously contributed, but my skin has really become dry and wrinkled.
    Besides this, I cannot think of any good reasons to start drinking again – unless it is to celebrate my 60th. So many others things have changed that I can live happily with a few more wrinkles and a certain air of vagueness about me!

  15. George says:

    Well this is an interesting read. I haven’t given it that much thought yet. Especially the red wine is interesting because of the resveratrol which translate in the body to antioxidants for those who have heard about those free radicals killers that can slow down our aging process radically. The ORAC value of red wine is 3,873 μ mol TE/100g so with the two glass of wine you recommended in your article you get a good 8,000 ORAC units which equals about 30gram of Goji berries, or 1.5 kilo of Oranges not bad I’d say, as long as it stays at the two glasses :-).

  16. Nichole says:

    I personally stay away from alcohol for several reasons. Calories, and mostly, I’ve seen more harm than good come from drinking. I like to keep a very sober lifestyle. I think I’ve only had about 3 alcoholic drinks this entire year so far. So I can’t say that I’m 100% non-alcoholic, but pretty darned close. It’s my belief that the benefits of abstaining from it far outnumber the benefits of drinking.

  17. julie says:

    I don’t much care for the stuff, and it makes me ill before it makes me drunk, but I drink socially, especially wine with dinner, since that’s what passes for social around these parts. I’ve heard from women who asked their doctors while pregnant, and the response was that a little bit of drinking is fine (think of all those Europeans), but since we’re so bad at moderation, they advise none.

  18. Brian says:

    Great article! I also want to point out that the current thinking is that alcohol calories don’t “count” towards fat storage. As I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), there is no metabolic pathway for alcohol to be converted into fat. The only effect that alcohol has on body fat is that it delays burning or storing fat until the body has finished processing the toxins that result from the breakdown of alcohol in our system. Of course the extra carbs in some drinks might affect your macronutrient targets if you’re being really OCD about it, but that’s not going to apply to most people.

  19. Samantha says:

    Yay, as a beer-and-fun-lover this article makes me happy! This is a great follow-up to that intense discussion after your article on how to avoid drinking more than you want while out with friends.

  20. Karen B. says:

    I love a nice French red wine but usually drink less expensive Aussie or Calif. wines. My very favorite cocktail is from a favorite book An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude.
    Rum and Coconut Water a’la Receta
    2 ounce white rum
    4 ounces coconut water (open fresh coconut and strain water)
    1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk
    grating of nutmeg
    Mix rum, coconut water and milk well (I use a tiny whisk). Pour over ice and grate nutmeg over top. Serve.
    There’s nothing like it.

  21. Tandy says:

    we have half a tasting glass of red wine with dinner most nights!

  22. Mo says:

    Hands down a big pint of Guinness! Life is too short to drink tasteless beer. I used down quite a bit of the light stuff. And the funny thing is, after I dropped some weight people always asked me what my secret was – the answer for me was cut out the drinking. Fewer empty calories and fewer hangover day gorges. Now, I keep it to one or two tastey beers every once in awhile. Quality in moderation works every time! Take care! Mo

  23. Michael says:

    Is drinking alcohol healthy? It better be since I don’t plan on giving it up anytime soon. :-)

  24. Jason says:

    Favorite Drink? Marguertia!
    Not the Joe Crow with Urinal cake mix served at most establishments.

    1 part mesquite honey sometimes labeled desert flower honey
    1-2 parts warm water to dilute honey and mix well
    2 parts fresh squeezed lime juice
    4 parts 100% blue agave blanco tequila. I like Herradura Silver

    Shake well with ice in a coctail shaker and pour over ice
    You will never drink a Joe Crow urinalcake marguerita again.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Did I mention I love people leaving drink recipes on my blog?? Thx!

      • Jason says:

        Here’s one more; I call it a Tuscan Fizz

        1 shot vodka
        1 shot lemoncello
        The juice of one blood orange (seasonal at farmer’s markets)
        Splash of San Pellegrino for the fizz
        Shake and serve over ice.

        Well crafted food needs well crafted cocktails

    • Michael says:

      I don’t normally like margaritas or other fu-fu type of drinks but this I have to try. Thanks for posting.

  25. Kip says:

    All the ‘benefits’ of alcohol drinks can be found in other places. There is nothing beneficial about alcohol at its core but there is damage caused. Having drinks with friends may increase joy, but there are other ways. Red Wine has resveratrol but there are other ways. You can find all these reported benefits through other avenues. This is a justification for and unhealthy practice.

  26. Bobbie says:

    My favorite drink is a Ramos gin fizz. This is a drink invented in New Orleans – and it involves an egg!

    Ramos Gin Fizz
    2 oz Gin (Plymouth)
    ½ raw egg white
    ½ oz simple syrup
    ½ oz lemon juice
    3 drops orange flower water
    1-2 oz Soda water

    The traditional preparation of this drink calls for shaking it in a cocktail shaker for TWELVE MINUTES. Since I refused to add rotator cuff injuries to the other problems associated with alcohol, I use a stick blender to get it started. Some recipes call for cream and lime juice as well – I can take em or leave em. You definitely don’t need the cream to achieved the frothy goodness. What you mustn’t leave out is the orange flower water. It makes the drink. I don’t know about other parts of the country, but in the Northeast you can get it at Armenian grocery stores or specialty liquour stores.

  27. Ali says:

    Hi everyone,

    I don’t drink, but I would like to get all these benefits!
    Do raisins have these benefits?

    Thank you

  28. Lance Strish says:

    MatLalonde has come out on a radio show against Alcohol, citing dysbiosis:
    http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=212989748788094&id=710880533 (for those without facebook: http://is.gd/vwXseL mp3 download)

    And his cited studies after someone asked “I’d love to see some of what you like to reference regarding alcohol and leaky gut/dysbiosis”:
    http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10151152389020534&id=710880533 (without facebook: http://paste2.org/p/1868043 with a link to sciencedaily)


    My comment was featured on PHD (http://perfecthealthdiet.com/?p=5438 ctrl+f ‘Lance’)

  29. Dee says:

    I used to love mudslides and all the high calorie dessert type ice cream based cocktail drinks mmm delicious — My regular go to drink was vodka chased with some type of juice… or a Sangria…

    The new me these days i occassionally go for champagne (1 glass) or the occassional beer (1-2) depending on if i’m going to dance off the calories….

  30. Dee says:

    Darya, check out the iPhone app if you wish, drink recipes, bar equipment etc.

    http://itunes.apple.com/ua/app/in-d-mix/id491353076?mt=8

  31. Tom says:

    From the Mayo Clinic:
    Moderate alcohol use may be of most benefit only if you’re an older adult or if you have existing risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol. If you’re a middle-aged or younger adult, some evidence shows that even moderate alcohol use may cause more harm than good. In fact, if you’re a woman and drink alcohol, talk to your doctor about taking supplemental folate to help reduce the risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol use. You can take other steps to benefit your cardiovascular health besides drinking — eating a healthy diet and exercising, for example.

  32. Jim Smith says:

    You see alcohol is beneficial, but only if you drink moderately. However, most people drink for pleasure and to party. Alcohol is not as beneficial to society as one might think. First of all there are many innocent lives lost as a result of accidents caused by drunk drivers. There is an increase in crime and things such as domestic violence. Of course there are people who drink with responsibility, but then there are others. Alcohol causes a man to lose his senses and the ability to think. Alcohol is often abused by youngsters. I think the government should ban alcohol unless it be for medical/religious purposes.

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