Effects of Alcohol on Health
Have you heard conflicting reports on the effects of alcohol on health?
Stories come to mind of people that are over 100 years old that credit their longevity to a drink a day. Others in the centenarian-club say they lived so long because they never drank.
The facts about drinking that people find online are usually just as conflicted. It seems like every week, a study comes out that either condemns or praises alcohol.
What effect does drinking alcohol actually have on health? Read on to see the pros, cons, and a final takeaway that will help you be in the driver's seat for your health.
Benefits of Alcohol Consumption
A study published in August of 2017 found that light to moderate alcohol consumption was linked with reduced incidences of cardiovascular disease and ischemic strokes (1). Light-moderate alcohol consumption has also been found to lower the incidence of type II diabetes due to it being an insulin-sensitizing agent (2). However, heavy alcohol consumption, as well as binge drinking, has been found to increase the incidence of diabetes, heart disease and stroke (2).
Another study published in 2017 found that individuals 85 years and older who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol experienced improved cognitive longevity compared with their peers who abstained from drinking (9).
Alcohol consumption has also been found to reduce the occurrence of gallstones in both men and women (10).
Lastly, light–moderate alcohol consumption has been found to reduce all-cause mortality (1). This means those who consume a moderate amount of alcohol are less likely to die from all causes when compared to individuals who don’t drink.
It must be noted that these studies are not conclusive, and it may be that those abstaining from alcohol are doing so because of a pre-existing disease or because of heavy alcohol consumption in the past, which could result in skewed information.
Detriments of Alcohol Consumption
It goes without saying that heavy alcohol use, as well as chronic alcohol abuse, leads to disease and adverse societal outcomes. Alcohol is implicated in 1/3 of violent crimes and more than 16,000 people die every year from alcohol-related automobile accidents. It is estimated that alcohol abuse costs the US government $185 billion dollars annually (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).
Chronic alcohol abuse has been linked to liver disease, pancreatitis, gastric ulcers, decreased immune function, malnourishment, osteoporosis and increased overall mortality.
Additionally, alcohol use is the number one preventable cause of birth defects in the US (3). There is no acceptable level of alcohol consumption while pregnant.
Consumption of alcohol has also been implicated as a causal factor in the development of depression (4).
When it comes to the detriments of moderate alcohol use, the most studied area is in oncology. A recent position paper published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) states that 5.5% of cancer occurrences and 5.8% of cancer deaths are directly related to alcohol (5). Alcohol use, regardless of amount, has been linked to the development of breast, liver, colorectal, esophageal and head and neck cancers (5). Alcohol consumption, including light-moderate use, has also been associated with an increase in breast cancer in both Caucasian and African American women (6)(7).
When it comes to cancer, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. We advise our patients with cancer, or predisposed to developing cancer (especially breast cancer) to avoid consuming it.
Wine, Beer or Liquor?
Researchers have gone back and forth on what is the healthiest type of alcohol to drink.
Many believe that wine is the healthiest form of alcohol due to its high antioxidant and polyphenol content. This theory started around 200 years ago when it was found that the French had fewer incidents of cardiovascular disease when compared with populations who drank other forms of alcohol, even though the French ate a diet rich in butter and cheese. This became known as the “The French Paradox”.
However, recent studies have found that it is not the type of alcohol consumed, but the amount. A study looking at 51,529 US males found that moderate alcohol consumption was linked with overall health benefits regardless of the type of alcohol consumed (8).
What Constitutes Moderate Alcohol Consumption?
To first clarify what moderate alcohol consumption entails, we must understand what 1 drink means in the research literature.
One standard drink is equal to approximately 14 grams (0.6 fl oz) of pure alcohol/ ethanol.
This equates to approximately 12 ounces of (5%) beer, 9 ounces of (7%) malt liquor, 5 ounces of (12%) wine or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof spirits.
When the research literature says moderate alcohol consumption, this usually means 1 drink/ day for women and 2 drinks/ day for men. Heavy alcohol consumption is considered 3 drinks/ day for women and 4 drinks/ day for men. Binge drinking is 5 + drinks in one sitting for men and 4+ drinks for women.
Keep in mind that many drinks actually contain more alcohol than the standard drink defined in the research literature. For example, if you order a single Mai Tai, which can be a really boozy drink (approx. 3 + oz. booze/drink), that single drink could equate to about 2 1/3 standard drinks as defined by the study. Generally, you'd assume that one drink would be fine, but the amount of alcohol in that single drink already inclines that individual to the heavy drinker category defined by the study. (And what if you didn't just have one)? This is just an aside to keep in mind not just the number of drinks, but also what they are, and how much alcohol they actually contain.
Based on current research, it appears that effect on health from alcohol consumption follows a J-shaped curve.
What this means is that those who abstain from drinking alcohol see no negative or positive health effects. Those who consume a light-moderate amount of alcohol see health benefits and heavy drinkers see negative health effects.
Alcohol consumption is a personal choice and needs to be assessed on a case by case basis based on your current lifestyle and health.
Studies have shown that the younger you are, the fewer benefits you receive from consuming alcohol, and so the risks most likely outweigh the benefits. The maximum benefits of consuming alcohol are seen in older individuals.
If you have cancer or are predisposed to developing cancer we cannot stress enough that you need to avoid drinking alcohol.
(Our blog isn't designed to provide specific medical advice or replace a medical professional. If you have any specific questions about your health, how to make changes responsibly, or would like to set up an appointment with our clinic, head to our Contact Us page and let us know)!
(1) Xi, B., Veeranki, S. P., Zhao, M., Ma, C., Yan, Y., & Mi, J. (2017). Relationship of Alcohol Consumption to All-Cause, Cardiovascular, and Cancer-Related Mortality in U.S. Adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 70(8), 913–922. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2017.06.054
(2) Carlsson, S., Hammar, N., Grill, V., & Kaprio, J. (2003). Alcohol consumption and the incidence of type 2 diabetes: a 20-year follow-up of the Finnish twin cohort study. Diabetes Care, 26(10), 2785–90. https://doi.org/10.2337/DIACARE.26.10.2785
(3) Giliberti, D., Mohan, S. S., Brown, L. A. S., & Gauthier, T. W. (2013). Perinatal exposure to alcohol: implications for lung development and disease. Paediatric Respiratory Reviews, 14(1), 17–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.prrv.2012.05.005
(4) Boden, J. M., & Fergusson, D. M. (2011). Alcohol and depression. Addiction, 106(5), 906–914. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03351.x
(5) LoConte, N. K., Brewster, A. M., Kaur, J. S., Merrill, J. K., & Alberg, A. J. (2017). Alcohol and Cancer: A Statement of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Journal of Clinical Oncology : Official Journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, JCO2017761155. https://doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2017.76.1155
(6) Smith-Warner, S. A., Spiegelman, D., Yaun, S. S., van den Brandt, P. A., Folsom, A. R., Goldbohm, R. A., … Hunter, D. J. (1998). Alcohol and breast cancer in women: a pooled analysis of cohort studies. JAMA, 279(7), 535–40. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9480365
(7) Williams, L. A., Olshan, A. F., Hong, C.-C., Bandera, E. V., Rosenberg, L., Cheng, T.-Y. D., … Troester, M. A. (2017). Alcohol Intake and Breast Cancer Risk in African American Women from the AMBER Consortium. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 26(5), 787–794. https://doi.org/10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-16-0792
(8) Mukamal, K. J., Conigrave, K. M., Mittleman, M. A., Camargo, C. A., Stampfer, M. J., Willett, W. C., & Rimm, E. B. (2003). Roles of Drinking Pattern and Type of Alcohol Consumed in Coronary Heart Disease in Men. New England Journal of Medicine, 348(2), 109–118. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa022095
(9) Richard EL, Kritz-Silverstein D, Laughlin GA, Fung TT, Barrett-Connor E, McEvoy LK. (2017). Alcohol Intake and Cognitively Healthy Longevity in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Rancho Bernardo Study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28671111
(10) Leitzmann MF, Giovannucci EL, Stampfer MJ, Spiegelman D, Colditz GA, Willett WC, Rimm EB (1999). Prospective study of alcohol consumption patterns in relation to symptomatic gallstone disease in men. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10371403
Updating Estimates of the Economic Costs of Alcohol Abuse in the United States. National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.