Alcohol: Can it be good for you?

From ancient Babylon to present day, human beings have enjoyed alcohol and other fermented drinks. Only in recent years have people begun to debate whether alcohol is completely bad for health or if it has any added health benefits. Without any research most people can tell you firsthand that drinking every weekend is not going to make you feel great, either mentally or physically. However, there have been limited studies that suggest alcohol in moderation, can provide some health benefits. You probably will no’t be hearing your doctor advise you to drink more, anytime soon, but maybe that glass of wine with dinner is not as bad for you as it seems. Before you take that to heart, there are a few things to understand.

Depending on one’s age and background, one’s idea of “drinking” can range from a beer or two to having multiple drinks per hour. Yet, all the studies that suggest alcohol may have some health benefits agree that the effects are only observed when alcohol is consumed in moderation. So what is “moderate” and what constitutes a “drink”? There are no concrete definitions as of yet, since “moderate” depends largely on an individual’s body makeup and type and “a drink” depends on the type of alcohol and perhaps the region of the world you live in.

Similarly, in some studies, “moderate drinking” may refer to less than one drink per day, while in others it means three to four drinks per day. For the purposes of the studies to be discussed, the definition of “moderate drinking” will be the point at which the health benefits of alcohol clearly outweigh the risks. The latest definition used by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans places this point at no more than one to two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women.

The argument you may have heard the most and the one that alcohol enthusiasts like to cite most often, is that alcohol is good for your heart. In specific cases, there is some truth to this. Many studies have shown an inverse relationship between moderate drinking and the risk of heart disease (~40% reduction). Alcohol has been shown to raise levels of high-density lipoprotein, also known as good cholesterol, which in turn is linked to protection against heart disease. Drinking alcohol has also been linked to a range of benefits from producing better sensitivity to insulin as well improving factors that influence blood clotting. So, a glass of wine or beer once in awhile may actually benefit those who are at risk of heart disease.

Additionally, the potential benefits of alcohol extend beyond the heart. Research performed by the Nurses’ Health Study suggest that the risk of gallstones was lower in moderate drinkers than in non-drinkers. Again, the results placed an emphasis on moderate drinking as there was no benefit observed from those that drank more than four drinks a day. Another Dutch study showed that healthy adults who drank one to two glasses per day had a lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes compared to teetotalers. Moderate alcohol consumption has even shown signs of preventing the common cold. In 2002, the New York Times published the results of Spanish researchers which found that drinking eight to fourteen glasses of wine per week (especially red wine) showed around a 60 percent reduction in the risk of developing a cold. The researchers attributed this result to the antioxidant properties of wine.

Furthermore, the way you drink is seemingly more important than what you choose to drink. Drinking heavily one day of the week and not drinking the rest of the week is not the same as having a drink per day. This is not to say that one should strictly adhere to having a drink every night of the week, but if you particularly enjoy having a drink with dinner or at the end of a long day, the emphasis should again be on moderation.

None of this is to say that you should or need to drink and if you currently do not drink, you do not have to start drinking for the possible health benefits. Conclusive evidence about health benefits of alcohol is not certain, and alcohol may not benefit everyone who drinks. In fact, it is possible that those who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have other behavioral tendencies that lead to healthier living than those that abstain completely or drink excessively. That being said, moderate consumption of alcohol may be of most benefit if you have existing risk factors for heart disease. However, there are a plethora of other steps you can take to improve your heart health besides drinking. For instance, eating a healthy diet and exercising have much more robust research behind them and are a much better alternative to hitting the bottle.

Richard Yoon