October kicks-off the time of year where libations abound, commencing with Oktoberfest and culminating with New Year’s celebrations. While occasional and modest indulgences are seemingly harmless, knowing how much and how often may help prevent life-altering (and sometimes life-threatening) consequences. And yet, an unusual medical paradox exists. For centuries humans have been consuming alcohol for both secular and religious purposes, and there is some evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol may have health benefits. So wherein lies the compromise?
For women, the evidence-based Federal Dietary Guidelines state that moderate alcohol consumption is one drink per day. Definitions of the “standard drink” vary by country, in the US one standard drink is equal to 14.0 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol. In other words, one drink equates to:
- 12-ounces of beer
- 8-ounces of malt liquor
- 5-ounces of wine
- 1.5-ounces 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor (i.e. “a shot”)
Risk for alcohol problems increase with heavy drinking, which is classified for women as more than seven drinks per week or three drinks per occasion. Binge drinking is considered four or more drinks in one drinking occasion. “Why the different standards? Women are created equal, right?” Not when it comes to alcohol. Research shows that although men more frequently use and abuse alcohol, women suffer from more alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels. On average, women who are heavy drinkers experience behavioral, social, and health problems associated with progression of symptoms and illness sooner than men (this includes loss of control over drinking, job loss, and cirrhosis). In addition to the many other health-related problems alcohol can cause, for women, it can increase the risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis. And, as if you needed more bad news, women are significantly more likely to have depression with alcohol use.
Think alcohol consumption or abuse doesn’t apply to you? Maybe not directly … According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, slightly more than half (51.6 percent) of Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol. This translates to roughly 129 million people (currently US population is 313 million). As if these statistics weren’t staggering enough, nearly three quarters of students (72 percent) have consumed a significant amount of alcohol by the end of high school, and about 39 percent have done so by the eighth grade. With numbers like those, you must wonder when someone has “crossed the line”. To establish a more precise use of the term alcoholism, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine conducted a 2-year study of the definition of alcoholism. It was agreed to define alcoholism as “a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic.”
Participating in moderate alcohol consumption (key word being moderate, i.e. one drink per day for women)? There may be some [small] benefits. However, this is NOT endorsing or encouraging the start of or increase in the amount of alcohol consumption. And as another disclaimer, any alcohol consumption can be detrimental with a personal or strong family history of alcoholism, pregnancy, previous hemorrhagic stroke, hepatic or pancreatic disease, and operation of potentially dangerous equipment or machinery. So what does the research show? Several studies suggest that light to moderate alcohol consumption decreases the risk of coronary heart disease by 40 to 70 percent, as compared to drinking no alcohol or heavy alcohol intake. This happens because there seems to be an improvement in insulin sensitivity (how well your body uses sugar) and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, i.e. the “good cholesterol”). And studies are showing that it may not just be the red wine, but there are similar benefits with beer and other alcohols as well (it’s the ethanol and not necessarily the drink’s components).
And so, as you consider partaking in the omnipresent celebrations that occur this time of year, bear in mind that while occasional to moderate alcohol consumption potentially confers some cardiovascular benefits, excessive consumption results in proportional negative outcomes. If you choose to drink, do so responsibly and consciously.