‘Tis the season to be merry

‘Tis the season for the “raising of spirits.” Of course, in the Christian world, it’s a time of spiritual renewal and cheer. But we can also take this phrase more literally, as in hoisting a toast or two.

Indeed, men and women have been celebrating special occasions with alcohol for thousands of years. In fact, some archaeologists–including one of my professors at Penn, Solomon Katz–believe that ancient Egyptians first started growing grains not to make bread, but to make beer.

And not so long ago in Europe and early America, people often added hard cider to their drinking water. (In fact, until recently, most apples grown were to make hard cider.) They added alcohol to kill the unhealthy microbes present in much of the drinking water back then. Of course, it also enlivened the dining experience.

So, alcohol has been around a long time. And at this dark, cold time of year, it brings a little extra cheer.

On the physical side, moderate alcohol consumption has many benefits. Time and again over the past quarter-century, research has shown moderate alcohol confers many heart health benefits. Yet many so-called experts label alcohol’s proven benefits as a “paradoxical effect.”

But it’s no paradox at all.

A little alcohol dilates peripheral blood vessels and improves circulation. Indeed, on a cold winter night, you can feel the warming effect in your fingers, toes, cheeks, and nose.

And don’t forget, moderate alcohol also reduces stress. In fact, it’s a time-tested, physiologic stress-reliever and relaxation agent. And stress is the No. 1 hidden cause lurking behind most chronic diseases. Including heart disease.

Now, I’ve been writing a lot about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia lately in the Daily Dispatch. So you may wonder about alcohol’s long-term effects on memory and cognition. Especially if your Driver’s Ed teacher warned you, as mine did, against imbibing because it kills brain cells.

Fortunately, you can put all that foolish public school propaganda aside. A new study suggests that light-to-moderate drinking may actually help you remember things better in later life.

As I said earlier, a little alcohol helps blood circulation, a key requirement when it comes to nourishing the brain. Indeed, in this new study, published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, researchers link light and moderate alcohol consumption in people over 60 years old with higher episodic memory, which is the ability to recall memories of events. These older drinkers also had a larger volume in the hippocampus, the region of the brain related to memory.

The researchers believe subjecting the brain to moderate amounts of alcohol increases the release of brain biochemicals associated with cognitive functioning and information processing. Researchers did caution that long periods of excessive alcohol consumption (five or more drinks at a time) harm the brain.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, alcohol also increases blood flow and improves circulation. Remember that toasty drink on cold nights?

Well, it also improves blood flow to the brain. So that fact could help explain the new study’s results as well. Actually, the researchers really should have measured blood flow to the brain for this study. But that approach would involve real, physiologic experiments rather than just more statistical number-crunching.

Fortunately, we already have good evidence that increased blood flow to the brain lowers dementia risk. In fact, this past summer, I reported on a study that found men and women who develop moderately high blood pressure for the first time in older age have less dementia. They also have less cardiovascular diseases, including strokes. It could all simply mean as you get older, your body naturally increases blood flow to the heart and brain. So–perhaps that glass or two of wine with dinner is exactly what the doctor ordered (or SHOULD have ordered, anyway)! Especially as you get older.

Of course, moderation is the key.

As a former Medical Examiner, I know all too well that excess alcohol is a fatal hazard on the roads. (This fact is of particular concern at this time of year when roads can turn icy too.) But I also know the vast majority of fatal motor vehicle accidents invariably involve drivers who have imbibed mind-bending amounts of alcohol–more like 12 drinks too many, rather than two drinks too many, let alone the proverbial “one for the road.”

But our modern-day prohibitionists would have us eliminate drinking altogether. And in nanny-states, they keep pushing acceptable blood alcohol levels for driving while “intoxicated” to ridiculously low levels. Big government enforcement seems to find it much easier to persecute the average, responsible citizen who is a social drinker, rather than effectively prosecuting the “blind drunks” who really cause the slaughter on the roads.

“Experts” at the National Transportation Safety Board (who should stick to investigating the causes of recent airplane disasters that they still can’t figure out) recently recommended reducing “driving while intoxicated” alcohol levels so low that many people could not get behind the wheel after one or two drinks. This new limit, if imposed, would especially impact women, who tend to have smaller body sizes.

On top of that, many of the same nanny states are pushing and passing laws legalizing marijuana. But they’ve given nary a thought about driving while high on this dangerous drug. In fact, I recently reported that in Colorado, following the “medicalization” of marijuana, the number of motor vehicle fatalities involving marijuana doubled in a few short years. Now that they have just fully legalized it, who knows what will result. I would not advise driving those mountain roads until they come to their senses. That is, if they ever do.

So, this holiday season, go ahead and enjoy some festive wine, beer, or spirits…or whatever helps put you in a jolly mood. In moderation, alcohol can help you relieve stress, improve blood flow, and perhaps even improve your memories.