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June 6, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

What's a Healthy Amount of Alcohol?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

For many people, alcohol is an alluring siren. Its enjoyable effects beckons us to engage.  Studies and other reports tout the health benefits of moderate consumption. At the same time, however, we are warned about the evil back hand of alcohol. Is there a right amount of alcohol consumption? Do the risks outweigh the benefits? 

The Benefits of Drinking Alcohol

Research has shown that alcohol can help the heart (in moderation). It raises HDL (good cholesterol) modestly and has some anti-clotting properties. A few smaller studies even proposed a daily drink can reduce diabetes risk and prevent the onset of dementia.

A daily drink can reduce diabetes risk and prevent the onset of dementia.

The first report on the potential health benefits of alcohol came from a Johns Hopkins biologist in 1924 (ironically during the heart of prohibition).  He reported a U-shaped curve plotting death rates vs. alcohol consumption. In other words, higher death rates were seen in heavy alcohol users as expected, but also in abstainers. 

Those with mild-moderate consumption seemed to fare better. Decades later, as northern California grew in appreciation for their quality wines, experts in the healthcare field touted statistics about the health benefits of wine, red in particular. 

The benefits in red wine reportedly come from a group of chemicals called tannins, one in particular called resveratrol. This substance is found in the skin of grapes. Since skins are used in the fermentation process of red wines much longer than white wines, resveratrol levels are higher in reds. Is alcohol a factor here?  It stands to reason that simple grape juice or a handful of grapes each day would yield a similar benefit. No research is out there giving answers.

Confounders - What We DON'T See Behind Those Study Findings

The problem here is that we have answers where certain interests lie but none in the big picture.  In research this is called bias and the factors muddying the water are called confounders.

Let’s look at who drinks a mild-moderate amount of alcohol. For the most part, those who engage in a beer or a single glass of wine each night do not drink it wrapped in a paper bag.  These people use the alcohol to accompany a well-prepared meal which likely gives attention to balance and health consequences. These people exercise, get proper sleep and probably see their doctor for routine care. These confounders create bias.

The other side of this issue involves financial interest. While most research shows health benefits to a drink each day, most research in this area is funded in some way by the big business of alcohol. This, however, is not surprising and it is commonplace in the pharmaceutical world. Really, who else would foot the big bill for research? It’s marketing…an investment.

What we really need is a large-scale, unbiased study looking at different forms and amounts of alcohol and their effects on heart disease and health factors.  The sad truth is that this may never happen.

What Is a Healthy Amount of Alcohol to Drink?

Regardless of the controversy, it is nice to enjoy a beer, a glass of wine or a mixed drink.  Potential health benefits are justifying.  But you know what they say about too much of a good thing….  Balance is required.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 define moderation as one drink each day for women and two drinks each day for men under the following guidelines.

  • 1 Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
  • 1 Glass of Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
  • 1 Distilled Spirit Drink (80 proof: 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)

There are of course exceptions to this rule. Underage drinking is illegal. Do not drink if you are going to drive or operate heavy machinery. Do not drink if you have a history of alcoholism. Use extreme caution if you have a family history of alcoholism. Do not use alcohol to treat depression or anxiety. Consult your doctor if you take prescription drugs that may interact with alcohol.

In Conclusion…

Enjoy alcohol, but do so in moderation.  Many claims are out there regarding the potential health benefits of regular mild-moderate alcohol consumption.  These claims are under criticism, however.  No definitive, large-scale studies have left us with clear cut answers as to what benefits exist.  We are left to ponder…perhaps over a nice glass of merlot.

I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. ~Sir Winston Churchill

My grandmother is over 80 and doesn’t need glasses. She drinks right out of the bottle. ~Henny Youngman

Photo Credit: 96dpi

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