Alcohol: Health Benefit or Health Risk?
Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN, CSSD, ACSM-CPT
I just want to start out by saying “Don’t shoot the messenger!” I always present topics based on research consensus done to date. The topic of alcohol can be quite charged for people. Those who enjoy drinking may tout the potential health benefits of alcohol, while nondrinkers or people who have experienced some loss due to alcohol may be more in-tune with the health or safety risks. I enjoy a drink occasionally myself, but I will admit that after reading more and more research on the potential risk I have decreased my intake. My husband died of stomach cancer and part of me will always wonder if alcohol had an impact, even though he was not a heavy drinker.
I will go through the potential benefits first because there aren’t many compared to risks. Everything I mention for benefits is for light to moderate intake of alcohol, which will be defined later. Health risk increases greatly when the number of drinks goes beyond moderation.
- Alcohol is a blood thinner. That means it may help prevent blood from clotting and cells sticking to arteries. This in turn may reduce risk of developing and dying from heart disease and stroke. This is true for all alcohol regardless of the type.
- Small amounts of alcohol may raise HDL, or good, cholesterol levels.
- Red wine has antioxidants called polyphenols that may protect cells from damage and promote heart health.
- Very mixed evidence that moderate drinking may be protective against developing diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity.
Please do not start drinking because of these potential benefits. You can take a baby aspirin to thin your blood a little bit (discuss with your physician first, of course). You can exercise aerobically to raise your HDL cholesterol. You can drink 4 ounces of concord grape juice or eat a variety of fruits and veggies to get the antioxidants in red wine. You can eat right, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy weight to reduce risk of diabetes.
For women, moderation is defined as one drink per day. For men, it’s defined as two drinks per day. One drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (80 proof).
Unfortunately you cannot save them up. It is not an average of one or two drinks per day. Alcohol is literally a toxin, so having too much at one time adds more toxins for the liver to clear and the body to process.
For women, heavy drinking is defined as more than 3 drinks on any one day or more than 7 per week. For men, it’s defined as more than 4 drinks on any one day or more than 14 per week.
There are zero benefits when it comes to other diseases, especially cancer. The risk of certain cancers, especially breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, and liver, increases even with light to moderate alcohol intake. Other medical risks of drinking alcohol include heart-related issues (stroke, high blood pressure, heart muscle damage), pancreatitis, and liver disease.
Make sure you also check with your doctor or pharmacist about any medications you are taking to see if they interact with alcohol.
Other Side Effects
Remember that alcohol is classified as a toxin. This means that the body tries to clear the toxin at the expense of digesting and absorbing other nutrients. It may also inhibit the body’s ability to use stored fat for energy, which can lead to weight gain. Alcohol itself has 7 calories per gram (compared to 4 in carbs and protein and 9 in fat). It is calorically dense by itself, and when you mix it with sugary beverages, or add carbs like those in beer, the calories can really add up.
Alcohol has been well studied when it is related to sleep disturbance. Alcohol is a depressant and has sedative effects which may help some relax and fall asleep. However, once asleep, alcohol can negatively affect the quality of sleep, often causing disrupted sleep and inability to get the proper REM sleep to repair the brain overnight.
If you don’t drink, my advice is not to start. The potential health benefits do not outweigh the risks to your health and safety. If you do drink, stick with light to moderate intake. If in doubt, talk to your doctor about your personal risks factors to make an educated decision about how often and how much is right for you.
Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer, and fellow Wister. You can find her at dietdiva.net.