Many of my patients confess to me that they like to enjoy an alcoholic drink a few times a week. It helps them relax and unwind at the end of a stressful day or enjoy a social get together with friends and family. When I tell them I’m okay with this and they can continue to enjoy their little bit of alcohol every week, they’re always surprised.
To be sure, there is conflicting medical advice available about alcohol drinking. However, the key word to remember is moderation. Heavy drinking always leads to health problems. It can adversely affect your heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and bladder. It can lead to diabetes, depression, breast cancer, not to mention numerous social problems. What do I mean by heavy drinking? More than 2 drinks a day, 7 days a week. Yet, recent research shows that moderate alcohol, 1 drink a day, or less, can actually protect your health. Let me explain why.
Why Moderate Alcohol Intake Can Be Good For You
The most recent research out of the University of Calgary has found that people who consume alcohol in small to moderate amounts, i.e., 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men, are up to 25% less likely to develop heart disease. Why? These small levels of alcohol circulating in the blood stream have been found to decrease cholesterol thereby protecting the heart. It is the alcohol content itself, rather than what type of alcoholic beverage it is (spirits, wine, beer) that affects the cholesterol. People who drink moderately have higher HDL (good) cholesterol which protects against heart attack. They also have lower levels of fibrinogen, a substance that creates blood clots and possible heart attacks and strokes.
However, other research has shown, most notably red wine, but also beer and some stronger spirits like vodka, that there are also other non-alcohol compounds in the drinks that also confer some health benefits. Let’s look at them individually:
Ø Red wine: For the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about something called antioxidants and how protective they are for your health. Red wine contains a major antioxidant called resveratrol that helps with weight loss, heart protection, and warding off wrinkles! It seems that men benefit quite a bit from resveratrol. A study out of Italy has shown that men aged 40-64 who drink 4-7 glasses of red wine per week, have a 52% decrease in prostate cancer. Red wine also contains another powerful antioxidant, ellagic acid that has a protective effect against cancer.
Ø Beer: Beer contains hops and a flavonoid called xanthohumol that research has shown to offer protection against colon and prostate cancer. Researchers are also looking into the possibility that xanthohumol could be used as natural hormone therapy for women. The hops in beer are high in Vitamin B6, which decreases dangerous homocysteine level buildup. High homocysteine levels are more accurate predictive markers for heart attack than cholesterol. Hops also have been shown to decrease inflammation, which can set the stage for many diseases to take hold. Another study out of Finland found that beer drinkers had 40% less risk of developing kidney stones. A Japanese radiation study found that another compound in beer, beta pseudouridine, has also been shown to fight chromosomal damage from radiation from x-rays and other sources.
Ø Vodka: Russian culture has long espoused drinking vodka for medicinal as well as social purposes. In fact, vodka was first available as a medicinal agent sold in pharmacies. With its strong alcohol content, it is used in Russia as a topical disinfectant for wounds as well as fighting upper respiratory infections. It is also touted as a folk remedy for fatigue and bad moods. I don’t know about that, but recent research into vodka has shown that, like other forms of alcohol, vodka, with its stronger alcohol content than wine or beer, can help prevent atherosclerosis and/or clots from forming. Another study out of the University of Moscow has shown that drinking up to 2 oz a day of vodka can help prevent colon cancer. More than 2 oz a day of vodka, however, can lead to serious health problems of the liver and stomach.
Ø Whiskey: Like red wine, malt whiskeys contain a powerful antioxidant called ellagic acid that has been proven in research studies to kill cancer cells. Ellagic acid acts as a free radical “scavenger” that destroys aberrant cells before they can cluster into cancerous tumors.
Now, typically in American culture, people tend to think if a little of something is good, then a lot of it will be even better. Not so with drinking alcohol. Like taking any medicine or supplemental vitamin, to reap the most health benefits from alcohol, it must be done in small to moderate amounts.
Just as you wouldn’t over-do your prescription drug for high blood pressure, or overdose on vitamin supplements, you shouldn’t increase your alcohol content because you think the benefit will be greater.
In fact, drinking more than is recommended, 1 drink or less per day for women, and 2 for men, not more than 7-14 drinks per week, will create serious health problems and negate any health benefit they offer. In addition, people with alcohol abuse problems should not drink any form of alcohol at all.
Keeping moderation in mind, go ahead and enjoy your relaxing few drinks per week and be sure to keep up your other health promoting behaviors like good nutrition, periodic detoxing, exercise, and adequate sleep. Cheers!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Drinking Alcohol in Moderation Protects Against Heart Disease, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110222192913.htm
Red Wine Protects The Prostate, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070525215203.htm
Health Benefits of Beer, http://www.fitnesstipsforlife.com/health-benefits-of-beer.html
Vodka, Good For The Heart and Soul, http://consumerwatch411.blogspot.com/2006/11/vodka-good-for-heart-good-for-soul.html
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