Alcohol: on the risks and possible benefits

Recently, the editor of a glossy magazine asked me to comment on the issue of alcoholic beverages in the format of a healthy lifestyle, and this request led me to publish an article on alcoholic beverages. For many of us, wine or stronger drinks is an important part of the way of life))) Let’s figure out how many of them are safe and what authoritative scientists think on this topic.

Drinking in moderation can be beneficial for your health, but the effects of alcohol are largely genetically driven and involve risks, so if you are not drinking it is better not to start, and if you are drinking, reduce the dose! These are the theses of an article published by the Harvard School of Public Health and based on a number of studies. Read more about the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol below.

Possible health benefits of alcohol

First of all, speaking about the potential benefits of alcohol, the authors of the article warn: we are talking about moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages… What is “moderate use”? There are different data on this score. But recently, scientists agree that the daily rate should not exceed one or two servings of alcohol for men and one serving for women. One serving is 12 to 14 milliliters of alcohol (that’s about 350 milliliters of beer, 150 milliliters of wine, or 45 milliliters of whiskey).


More than a hundred prospective studies show a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a 25–40% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack, ischemic stroke, peripheral vascular disease, etc.). This association is seen in both men and women who either have no history of cardiovascular disease, or have high risks of heart attack and stroke, or suffer from cardiovascular disease (including type II diabetes and high blood pressure). The benefits also extend to older people.

The fact is that moderate amounts of alcohol raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), which in turn protects against cardiovascular disease. In addition, moderate doses of alcohol improve blood clotting, which prevents the formation of small blood clots, namely, they, by blocking arteries in the heart, neck and brain, often cause heart attacks and strokes.

In people who drink alcohol moderately, other positive changes were found: insulin sensitivity increased, and gallstones and type II diabetes mellitus were less common than in non-drinkers.

More important is not that you drink and as… Seven drinks on Saturday night and being sober the rest of the week is not the equivalent of one drink a day. Drinking alcohol at least three or four days a week has been associated with a reduced risk of myocardial infarction.

Risks of drinking alcohol

Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of settling on one serving of alcohol. And its excessive use has a strong effect on the body. It seems to me that it is pointless to list the consequences of drunkenness, we all know about them, and nevertheless: it can cause inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis) and lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) – a potentially fatal disease; it can raise blood pressure and damage the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). There is strong evidence that alcohol is associated with the development of cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon and rectum.

In a study involving more than 320 women, they found that drinking two or more drinks a day increases the likelihood of developing breast cancer by 40%. This does not mean that 40% of women who drink two drinks a day or more will develop breast cancer. But in the drinking group, the number of breast cancer cases rose from the US average of thirteen to seventeen for every XNUMX women.

Several observations suggest that alcohol is likely to contribute to the development of liver cancer and colorectal cancer in women. Smokers are at increased risk.

Even moderate alcohol consumption carries risks: sleep disturbance, dangerous drug interactions (including paracetamol, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, pain relievers and sedatives), alcohol dependence, especially in people with a family history of alcoholism.

Genetics plays an important role in a person’s addiction to alcohol and in the absorption of alcohol. For example, genes can influence how alcohol affects the cardiovascular system. One of the enzymes that help metabolize alcohol (alcohol dehydrogenase) exists in two forms: the first breaks down alcohol quickly, the other does it slowly. Moderate drinkers with two copies of the “slow” gene have a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease than moderate drinkers with two genes for the fast enzyme. It is possible that a fast-acting enzyme breaks down alcohol before it can have a beneficial effect on HDL and blood clotting factors.

And another negative effect of alcohol: it blocks the absorption of folic acid. Folic acid (vitamin B) is needed to build DNA, for precise cell division. Supplemental folic acid supplementation can neutralize this effect of alcohol. Thus, 600 micrograms of this vitamin counteracts the effect of moderate alcohol consumption on the risk of developing breast cancer.

How to balance risks and benefits?

Alcohol affects the body in different ways and depending on the characteristics of a particular person, therefore there are no general recommendations. For example, if you are slim, physically active, do not smoke, eat healthy foods, and have no family history of heart disease, moderate alcohol consumption will not add much to your risk of heart disease.

If you don’t drink alcohol at all, there is no need to start. You can get the same benefits through exercise and healthy eating.

If you have never been a heavy drinker and have a moderate to high risk of heart disease, drinking one alcoholic drink a day may reduce that risk. For women in a similar situation, consider that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.

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