Is Alcohol Beneficial for You?

The Good and bad of drinking 

In certain circumstances, for some people, the answer is YES. 

In most cases, for most people, however, the answer is NO. As always, with alcohol, it depends on the dose and the individual. 

In a study involving five hundred thousand middle-aged to elderly Americans, researchers found that men and women who consume one drink a day of beer, wine or distilled spirits had a 20 per cent lower all death rate than non-drinkers. They also had a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in death from heart attacks and other circulatory diseases. While those are significant benefits, we need to keep two essential facts in mind: The beneficial effects of alcohol depend on low doses, and they are experienced only by people over the age of forty-five

What do we mean by low doses? For women, a low dose is generally defined as no more than 4 or 5 ounces of wine, one 12-ounce beer, or 1.25 ounces of 80-proof alcohol per day. In men, a low dose is no more than 8 to 10 ounces of wine, two 12-ounce beers, or two mixed drinks containing a total of 2.5 ounces of 80-proof alcohol per day. (Whenever we talk about amounts, it is essential to remember that a generously poured glass of wine may contain 6 to 10 ounces of the beverage rather than the suggested “low dose” of 4 or 5 ounces; a strong mixed drink generally consists of 2 or more ounces of 80-proof alcohol.) 

In low doses, alcohol may benefit your cardiovascular health, but only if you are over the age of forty-five, have no family history of alcoholism, and have never experienced any of the signs or symptoms associated with problem drinking or alcoholism.  

Teens and young adults experience no health benefits from drinking low doses of alcohol. Even low amounts of alcohol significantly increase a young person’s risk of death from injury or violence. For people between the ages of thirty and forty-five, the health benefits of alcohol are unclear, and researchers strongly caution this age group against drinking for “health” reasons. 

As a further caution, having more than one or two drinks a day will cancer out any protective effect alcohol may have on coronary heart disease by increasing the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), and cardiomyopathy (heart muscle damage). In addition, even low doses of alcohol may harm other organs and body systems. In a 1990 study comparing drinkers and non-drinkers, the researchers conclude: 

Non-drinkers enjoyed many health advantages over moderate drinkers. Compared to no drinking at all, even one drink a day led to increased oesophagal cancer, two drinks a day increased the risk of liver cirrhosis, there drinks a day increased the risk of cancer of the oral cavity, and six drinks a day increased the risk of accidental death. 

For women, even low to moderate doses of alcohol are associated with a sharply increased risk of breast cancer. Their conclusions are enough to shake any woman’s confidence in the health benefits of low-dose alcohol: Just one drink a day increases by another 9 per cent for each additional drink up to five drinks a day.  

Whatever benefits the drug alcohol may bestow in low doses, the health risks of even moderate drinking appear to outweigh them.  

Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant summarizes the research on the health benefits of alcohol in The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited: 

It must be borne in mind that any increase in alcohol use by a population increases the risk of other alcohol-related problems. Therefore, increasing the number of social drinkers is unlikely to improve a nation’s overall health. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol-related issues, call Freephone 0800 140 4044 

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