According to the 2014 World Cancer Report issued by the World Health Organization, no amount of alcohol consumption is safe. They say alcohol contributes to everything from breast cancer to pancreatic cancer to cancers of the mouth–at any amount.
But the American Heart Association advises that drinking alcohol in moderation reduces your risk of heart disease.
So–which organization do you believe?
If you regularly read my Daily Dispatch, you know I’m no prohibitionist. But I do follow the science. And the science shows moderation really is the key–particularly when it comes to alcohol.
As I explained yesterday, alcohol acts as a hormentin. In other words, a little bit of alcohol seems to benefit health and longevity. But excessive amount are indeed harmful. Moderate doses of ethanol, which is a toxic solvent in high doses, actually stimulates the liver and other organs. This action, in turn, protects the body against negative environmental exposures and toxins.
Plus, we need to consider other lifestyle factors…
Statistically, those who abstain from alcohol are typically older, eat a less healthy diet, and exercise less than do moderate drinkers. This description may not fit well with your typical image of a “teetotaler,” but it’s true. In fact, many epidemiological analyses control for these factors and they still show that moderate drinkers live longer, with fewer diseases.
The net result is the well-known “J-shaped” curve of alcohol consumption. One axis of the graph shows disease and death rates. The other axis shows the range of drinkers–from abstainers all the way up to heavy drinkers.
Those at highest end of alcohol use (abuse) are markedly less healthy. Those at the lower end (abstainers) also have higher disease and mortality rates. The drinkers in the middle have the best health and lowest mortality rate.
We see this kind of J-curve with other factors too, including body weight. Those at the high end are markedly less healthy. But those at the lower end aren’t healthy either.
Once again, these numbers suggest that moderation really is the key.
The most comprehensive analysis to date reviewed 84 papers collected from more than 4,000 studies published between 1950 and 2009. In this massive analysis, researchers consistently linked 2.5 to 14.9 grams per day of alcohol with a 14 percent to 25 percent lower risk of multiple cardiovascular disease outcomes. Including mortality.
(One pint glass of beer usually contains 16 ounces. A shot of liquor contains roughly 1.5 ounces. And the average glass of wine contains about 5 to 6 ounces.)
So–why does moderate alcohol consumption help lower mortality rates?
First, there’s its effect on your blood.
According to the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR), moderate alcohol consumption reduces platelet aggregation and blood clotting. In other words, alcohol thins the blood. This in turn reduces cardiovascular disease, because blood clots are a major factor in heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular diseases.
Plus, alcohol also raises “good” cholesterol by about 8 percent. (Not that I worry much about cholesterol. But if you do keep track of your cholesterol level, this statistic should be of interest.)
Third, alcohol also has anti-inflammatory effects, such as lowering C-reactive protein levels.
Fourth, moderate drinking reduces stress. And stress is the silent killer lurking behind high blood pressure (a real risk factor for heart disease) and heart disease itself.
Of course, many proponents of alcohol consumption point to a single “magic bullet” ingredient. Most notably, resveratrol in wine. Resveratrol is a compound found in grape skins. And many people believe resveratrol is the reason why wine drinkers live longer. Indeed, of all the non-alcoholic components of wine, resveratrol has been the most studied. And many popular dietary supplements now contain it.
But there are two problems with this theory.
First, many sources of alcohol do not contain resveratrol. For instance, there is no resveratrol in beer or spirits. But research shows drinking these other alcoholic beverages (again, in moderation) still confers heart benefits.
Second, the research on the benefits of resveratrol has actually been thoroughly debunked.
Dr. Deepak Das conducted much of the early research into resveratrol. But in 2012, he was found guilty of 145 counts of fabricating and falsifying data in studies that showed the health benefits of resveratrol. Dr. Das retracted 19 published papers that claimed cardiovascular benefits of resveratrol.
And earlier this year, researchers wrapped up a new resveratrol study–called the Aging in the Chianti Region trial. The researchers followed 783 men and women over the age of 65 for nine years. And they found resveratrol offered no benefit at all against heart disease or cancer. Lead author of the study Dr. Richard Semba of Johns Hopkins University says this finding should “close the book” on the health benefits of dietary resveratrol.
I certainly hope so.
I have said for 20 years that trying to find the single, “magic” ingredient in alcohol that boosts longevity is a waste of time and research money.
It’s very popular in mainstream medicine to focus on a single ingredient or mechanism of action. In other words, they think…if we can only reduce cholesterol, people will live to 100. Or, if we can only reduce inflammation, people will live to 100. If we can only get people to drink more red wine, they will all live to 100.
But the human body is not that simple.
And understanding the benefits of alcohol consumption isn’t that simple either.
My suggestion is to stop looking for magic bullets. Enjoy a glass or two of wine with meals. And, perhaps most of all, enjoy the convivial atmosphere that usually accompanies social drinking.
1. “Association of alcohol consumption with selected cardiovascular disease outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” British Medical Journal 2011;342:d671
2. “Resveratrol in Red Wine, Chocolate, Grapes Not Associated With Improved Health,” JAMA Internal Medicine published online 5/12/2014