Alcohol - where do we draw the line?


It would be fair to say that there are a few mixed messages over the use of alcohol. We regularly see stories in the media warning of the potential damage we can cause our bodies if we drink too much of it, yet other information suggests that occasionally drinking a little will benefit our health.

So what's the real deal here: should we be having a daily tipple?

It's important to consider the amount we drink, but also how we go about drinking. While it is true that light drinking can be beneficial to our health, context is important.

How can alcohol benefit our health?

There is some evidence that suggests light to moderate drinking can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, although the benefits probably only apply to any significant degree to men over 40 and women past the menopause. The reasons for this are believed to include:1

  • Increased levels of protective HDL cholesterol
  • Reduced tendency of the blood to form clots.

So how do we define 'light to moderate drinking'?

The research into the health benefits of alcohol has a very consistent message. Staying within the guidelines of light to moderate drinking means not consuming any more than one or two units a day, and ensuring that at least two days a week are completely alcohol-free. The majority of research suggests that drinking beyond three units quickly increases health risks above and beyond that of somebody who doesn't drink at all. The risks appear to stack up particularly quickly for younger people.2

As a guide, two units equates to a medium glass (175ml) of wine at 12% strength or around a pint of beer at 4% strength.

However, it is important to stress that these potential benefits come with a few other provisos. Binge-drinking in any form, even consuming exactly the same weekly amount as a light drinker but in one go, will have the opposite effect. This means an increased health risk in both the short and long-term.

Another proviso is your age, with the benefits being found in men and women who have reached their forties and beyond. The likely explanation for this is related to the time scale of the development of cardiovascular disease, which typically takes many years.

The same applies to post-menopausal women, and again this is due to the increased cardiovascular risk women experience as a result of reductions in oestrogen levels.

Does it matter what type of alcohol I drink?

In short, the type of alcohol consumed is not the most important factor as the alcohol itself (technically known as ethanol) is what has the biggest impact. Some evidence suggests that compounds in red wine known as phenols, which originate in grape skins and seeds, provide additional cardiovascular benefits.

Indeed, this link to red wine is the likely cause of the so-called French paradox where the incidence of cardiovascular disease is relatively low in certain red wine-consuming areas of France despite the presence of other cardiovascular risk factors.

As with most things, moderation is key - because as consumption increases beyond three units per day the friendly face of alcohol can start to turn very ugly.

References

1. https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/check-the-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/effects-on-the-body/is-alcohol-good-for-the-heart/#evidence (Professor Paul Wallace, Chief Medical Adviser)

2. Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the dose makes the poison... or the remedy (2014)