Every once in a while a new study comes about claiming that alcohol, when consumed in moderation can be good for you. Red wine is most often touted as having health benefits, especially when it’s part of a Mediterranean diet. These positive headlines are more than enough for many people to justify having a drink or two with dinner, even if they know they shouldn’t. Are there actual health benefits from drinking alcohol?
First, it’s worth noting that “moderate drinking” varies widely between studies. It could mean one drink per day, or it could mean three drinks per day. This hardly matters though, because even one drink will have very different effects on a 110 pound woman and a 250 pound man. So before we even get to the research, it’s already apparent alcohol’s effects on your health largely depends on who you are. Typically, moderate means one or two drinks per day for a man and one or less for a woman.
If you’re incapable of stopping after one or two drinks, the whole question is moot. If you can’t stop drinking once you start, all drinking is excessive drinking and increases your risk of blackouts, alcohol poisoning, poor decisions, and accidents. About half of fatal car crashes in the US involve alcohol. If you continue drinking for a long time, you are at much higher risk of liver damage, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers. So if moderate drinking is not an option for you, the health effects of alcohol are decisively negative.
If you can stop after one or two drinks, there may be some slight health benefit. Studies have found that moderate drinking lowers risk of cardiovascular disease, and protects against type 2 diabetes and gallstones. More than 100 studies have found that people without preexisting heart disease who drink moderately have about 25 to 40 percent lower risk of heart attack, ischemic stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from other cardiovascular causes. This is likely because moderate alcohol consumption increases HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Alcohol also increases sensitivity to insulin, which protects against type 2 diabetes.
However, the risks and benefits of moderate drinking are in a delicate balance. For example, middle-aged people are likely to benefit more from moderate drinking because they have a higher risk of heart disease than younger people, but middle-aged women also have a higher risk of breast cancer, which moderate drinking may increase even more. People who are physically fit and eat a healthy diet are not likely to benefit from moderate drinking and may suffer some negative effects. Moderate drinking may also interfere with sleep and increase anxiety and depression in some people. In short, it’s important to consider the broader context of your health and lifestyle and not just the evidence that moderate drinking can protect against cardiovascular disease.
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