Last month, the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) kicked off the new year by publishing a baseless manifesto against any and all alcohol consumption. They set aside the science confirming the benefits of moderate drinking. And instead, they focused on the health risks suffered by the small minority who drink to excess (as per usual).
To protect this small minority, ASCO demands we implement prohibitionist measures against the vast majority who consume alcohol, who do so safely and enjoy the associated health benefits.
I was particularly dismayed by their blithe assertion that the long-established heart benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are somehow “questionable.” The science consistently shows that moderate alcohol consumption benefits the heart.
Of course, you can probably find some poorly designed studies — which will cast doubt on just about anything — if you look hard enough. Take, for example, a recent study of 208,000 adults in Norway that came up with some pretty interesting findings. Some of which might lead you down a rabbit hole of questions about drinking alcohol.
But when I looked closely at the details of this study, I found the real answers…
Alcohol study misses forest for the trees
For this study, all the participants were born in 1960 or earlier and had participated in compulsory censuses conducted between 1960 and 1990.
The researchers came away with two key findings…
First, the researchers found moderate drinkers had a lower risk of dying from heart disease over a 30-year period, as compared to infrequent drinkers. That means moderate drinking equates to heart benefits.
No big surprises there, right?
But apparently, that’s not the result the researchers were looking for. So, they kept splitting hairs and decided to look at a subset of people in the lowest socio-economic group.
Now, let’s stop right there…
Right off the bat, any time researchers perform “subset analysis” of data, it raises red flags. Essentially, this often means they’re going on a “fishing expedition.” In other words, they have the end result in mind and will search for factors that will give them their desired result. Generally, I tend to take these types of findings with a major grain of salt.
In this case, the researchers linked consuming four to seven drinks per week to higher rates of heart-related deaths. But ONLY among people in the lowest socio-economic group.
Bingo — this finding is just what organizations like ASCO like you to see.
Not so fast, though…
There are some simple explanations here, if you know a little bit about practicing medicine…and nutrition.
The real culprit behind these “alcohol-related” deaths
Anecdotally, doctors have observed for decades that people who consume excessive alcohol are more susceptible to a host of diseases of the liver, pancreas, and kidneys. And excessive alcohol is also negatively associated with cognitive function.
In addition, doctors have long observed that people of a lower socio-economic status who consume excess alcohol are more apt to have poor nutrition. And oftentimes, frank malnutrition.
This makes sense, as alcohol — a carbohydrate — supplies calories to keep excessive drinkers alive. But excessive drinkers tend to have very poor diets, and are typically deficient in critical vitamins and minerals. This poor diet harms the brain, the nervous system, and — of course — the heart.
Specifically, people in lower socio-economic groups who consume excessive alcohol often have a vitamin B deficiency (which can affect the brain in Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome, in which brain degeneration is due to B vitamin deficiency, not alcohol per se). Also, research shows high homocysteine levels, which are strongly associated with low vitamin B levels, are a major risk factor for heart disease.
So, it’s more than likely that this vitamin B deficiency among the lower socio-economic group set the stage for these drastic heart findings in the new Norwegian study.
On the other hand, it makes sense that people in higher socio-economic groups, who consume four to seven drinks per week, do not run the same risk of heart disease. For the most part, this population is generally better nourished, with B vitamins that come from meats and eggs.
(Mind you, binge drinking causes serious health problems, regardless of nutritional or socio-economic status.)
In the end, there’s nothing new here.
Having a few drinks is still beneficial to your heart health. It helps promote relaxation, thus reducing the stress on both your heart and the rest of your body. (I wrote about this topic at length in a recent Daily Dispatch, “Enjoy your New Year’s toast without regret.”)
When it comes to happy hour and your cardiovascular health, I recommend the following:
- Practice moderate alcohol consumption.
One recent study (of many) indicated that health benefits are acquired from “light to moderate” drinking. This was defined as 14 or fewer drinks per week for men and seven or fewer drinks per week for women.
- Follow a Mediterranean-style of eating.
A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
- Take a daily B vitamin supplement.
I recommend a high-quality supplement that contains the following: 50 mg each of thiamine, riboflavin (B2), niacin/niacinamide, B6, and pantothenic acid, plus 400 micrograms of folic acid/folate, 12 mcg of B12, and 100 mcg of biotin.
For more lifestyle strategies that can help you achieve optimal heart health, check out my Heart Attack Prevention and Repair Protocol. Click here for more information or to enroll today.
“Life course socioeconomic position, alcohol drinking patterns in midlife, and cardiovascular mortality: Analysis of Norwegian population-based health surveys,” PLOS Medicine (www.journals.plos.org) 1/2/2018