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.