Last updated 14 January 2016
Are moderate drinkers really better off health-wise than abstainers?
It appears so.
Actually there is evidence lending weight to both sides of the debate (moderate drinking versus non drinking).
Guilt-free boozing advocates, such as author of The Good News About Booze Tony Edwards, highlight research demonstrating among other things that drinking alcohol helps to ward off dementia.
On the flip side, we have the World Health Organisation declaring that any amount of alcohol is carcinogenic (cancer causing).
Others weighing the risks and benefits say that if you don’t drink, there is no good reason to start. They say that the link between moderate alcohol consumption and better health is questionable ‘at best’.
Doing the best we can with what we know, here is an approach to moderating your booze intake. It includes what the best drinks are for health (and you might be surprised).
Moderation – what does it mean?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn there is a lack of consensus on it. Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate alcohol consumption as having up to one drink per day for women, and up to two drinks per day for men (refers to the amount consumed on any single day, and is not intended as an average over several days). The reason the amount is lower for women is because generally, drinking is harder on a woman’s body.
Given that a standard glass of wine (175ml) is around two units, this quota is low! Lots of us would easily quaff more in one sitting.
So how strict do we need to be with ourselves about this?
It has been suggested that drinking more than what is ‘perfectly’ recommended, without displaying symptoms of alcohol dependence, is generally better for you than drinking nothing. There is also research data lending weight to that.
However, the more common view is that alcohol is one of those ‘fine line’ substances – once you start to get out of balance, trouble awaits.
The fact is, when it comes to drinks per day/per week, there is no magic number that applies to everyone. Even if there was one that everyone agreed on, alcohol tolerance varies from person to person.
We probably all intuitively know the difference between moderate and not moderate.
It seems like the vast majority of us could do with cutting back – even if just by one drink per week. That especially is the case for women aged 45-64.
We should all avoid binge drinking, which is associated with strokes and sudden death. We’re better off enjoying alcohol over the course of a week, rather than ‘saving up drinks’.
Here are some great suggestions for ways to cultivate moderation with alcohol.
When moderation doesn’t work
Moderate drinking won’t be healthy for all of us.
Similarly, if you are affected by a condition such as candida, then alcohol should be avoided.
Other individuals for whom moderate drinking might not be healthy:
- Those with addiction problems (obvious).
- Pregnant women. There is no clear evidence that light drinking does any harm, but the latest recommendations are that no alcohol is best.
- People on certain medications.
3 key ways alcohol (probably) benefits us
This isn’t a thorough account of all of the benefits. Here is a more in depth account.
Drinking in moderation might be positive for heart health in three ways: by raising HDL (good) cholesterol; by acting as an anticoagulant, making the blood less sticky and less likely to clot; and by reducing inflammation, which plays a role in heart attacks and strokes.
A recent detailed analysis of 84 of the best studies looking at the alcohol and heart connection showed that compared to people who didn’t drink alcohol, moderate drinkers had:
- 29% lower risk of being diagnosed with coronary artery disease.
- 25% lower risk of dying from a heart attack.
- 25% lower risk of dying from any heart or blood vessel disease.
- 13% lower risk of dying from any cause (including cancer deaths).
Excitingly, studies have suggested that light to moderate alcohol consumption may have some protective effects for dementia.
In one study that included more than 365,000 participants since 1977, moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
It is understood that alcohol does this by stressing cells and thus toughening them up to cope with major stresses further down the road that could cause dementia.
Longevity in general
Another longitudinal study (observational research method in which data are gathered for the same subjects repeatedly over a period of time) showed that people who don’t consume any alcohol at all tend to die before people who do.
There are various hypotheses about why this is. More research is needed though.
In a review of research, moderate drinkers showed better mental health, greater sociability and social integration (a key factor in a person’s longevity of itself) and better long-term cognitive functioning.
Cancer – the exception to the ‘moderation’ rule?
There’s less debate among researchers about the role alcohol plays in cancer risk. The evidence indicates that the links are strong (although how exactly drinking alcohol causes cancer is not known).
The World Health Organisation declared alcohol a carcinogen in 1988. US government health agencies have reached the same conclusion.
Heavy or regular alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing head and neck cancers (throat and voice box). The risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol a person drinks.
It may be that any type of alcohol intake increases our cancer risk. Research has found that even light drinking increases risk of mouth and breast cancer.
The position with prostate cancer isn’t clear.
It is an area of ongoing research.
The art of drinking – 6 steps to savvy
Here are six ways you can be ultra zen and clued up about your moderate alcohol intake.
Know why you hit the bottle
If you regularly rely on alcohol to calm you down, de-stress or you ‘escape into’ it, then you probably aren’t being moderate.
When we learn to deal with underlying reasons for stress or anxiety, rather than using short term fixes such as alcohol, the rewards are vast. It could be said that an alcohol reliance might offer a key to unlocking a more authentic version of you. (The same goes for anything we use to escape into).
And another thing.
What you’ve heard about alcohol unleashing creativity is undoubtedly true. But there are other (better!) ways – for example, meditation. Grabbing the corkscrew shouldn’t be the go-to source for inspiration.
Be strategic about when you use alcohol
Drinking alcohol comes with some immediate health detriments that are worth knowing about.
Drinking brings fat burning to a grinding halt (and makes us hungrier, too)
Alcohol provides empty calories. Drinking your calories can send you over what you need, and contribute to weight gain.
Over and above that, researchers have found that for several hours after drinking alcohol (vodka in the study), fat burning decreased by a huge 73%. Frankly, this isn’t appealing when you are serious about recomposing your body.
You’ve probably experienced that drinking alcohol can increase your appetite too. It isn’t called aperitif for nothing.
We feel good (like when we’re in love!) but we can’t make solid decisions (like when we’re in love)
Researchers have found that alcohol effects are similar to that produced by oxytocin – the love/bonding hormone. (So that’s why we like it so much!)
It won’t shock you to know that drinking alcohol causes your decision making skills and memory to worsen.
It might surprise you to learn that a hangover impairs the way your brain holds and processes information. Basically hangovers make us stupid.
As many as 15% of people regularly use alcohol to drop off. But studies suggest that our bodies quickly build up a tolerance to alcohol’s soporific effects.
Alcohol significantly reduces REM sleep, the deepest stage of sleep. REM sleep is important because it is the restorative part of our sleep cycle.
Conversely, drinking alcohol increases slow-wave sleep during the first half of the night, a stage of sleep also linked to the body’s healing and restoration.
So sleep-wise, drinking alcohol presents a kind of trade-off between enjoying a restful first half of the night and a disrupted, fragmented sleep for the second half.
Interestingly, studies have found that it is not unusual for athletes, gym rats, cyclists, and other exercise enthusiasts to uncork a bottle of wine or grab a beer after a good sweat session. That may have less to do with replenishing burned calories and more to do with the brain’s search for reward.
However alcohol offers some specific detriments to your exercise regime. The dehydration caused by drinking alcohol prolongs muscle recovery (due to decreased blood flow in the muscles).
Alcohol might negate work we have done in the weight room (in sufficient quantities it has been shown to diminish protein synthesis in rats). Alcohol also interferes with protein digestion and absorption.
In summary, you could say that three of the pillars of health – digestion, exercise, and sleep – are either mildly or significantly compromised by drinking alcohol.
Choose your poison wisely
For a very long time, red wine has reigned supreme over other forms of alcohol.
Well, the queen has been dethroned. Here’s a brief explanation as to how and why.
Red wine gets its color from polyphenolic compounds, one of which is an ingredient called resveratrol, found in the skins of grapes. Because red wine gets fermented with grape skins for longer than white wine, it has higher levels of resveratrol.
Resveratrol is the main reason we thought red wine was so special. Literally thousands of papers have been published on its potential to assist with neurological diseases, cancer and general longevity.
However, the animal studies showing that resveratrol can slow down aging do not translate to us getting the benefits from wine (we’d need to consume an unsafe amount).
In fact, white may be the healthier option, as it’s sometimes lower in calories and still contains the beneficial flavonoids and antioxidants that you get in red.
Good news for beer drinkers: research has specifically shown that beer is as beneficial as other alcohol. However, beer is really not ideal otherwise, as it’s relatively high in calories (beer belly anyone?) and it contains gluten and yeast – which are problematic for loads of us.
The winner – spirits on the rocks
It seems like the best types of alcohol to enjoy for health from an all-purpose perspective are clear spirits such as vodka, gin and tequila.
Mixer wise, keep it simple and sugar free. That way, your body only has the alcohol to deal with (without the burden of dealing with sugar as well).
Good mixers are kombucha (fermented tea), fresh citrus or low sugar fruits such as melon and berries.
Cocktails can be done healthily, but not in bars unless you happen to live somewhere super health conscious. You’re better off making your own.
Is it worth going organic?
Drinking organic wine is associated with less potent hangovers and fewer chemicals.
Conventionally grown grapes and grain used in wine and beer are sprayed with up to 15 different pesticides and the soil is often chemically fertilized.
It is probably a good idea to buy organic where you can.
Hack your hangover
Nasty hangover symptoms can be prevented or significantly reduced by simple interventions, which sort of extend natural detoxification mechanisms.
Gone are the days of ‘hair of the dog’. Here’s where we are at:
The basics – proper hydration and quality food choices
Your mum was right – you should alternate every alcoholic drink with a drink of water.
In terms of what you should eat prior to and after alcohol, it is the same as what you should be eating anyway (nutrient dense foods, and a high protein/healthy fat diet that is relatively low in carbohydrates).
Afterwards, as you have probably taken a huge sugar hit, eat foods that are protein/healthy fat oriented (for example, eggs fried in coconut oil), and high water content, detoxifying foods (green smoothies and juices and coconut water are ideal).
The amino acid l-cysteine, along with vitamin B1 and vitamin C, have been found to be helpful in preventing hangover – especially in combination.
Activated charcoal might be effective at curbing nausea and detoxifying you afterwards.
Consider having dry days, weeks and months
There is data suggesting that a month off alcohol could help prevent serious illnesses in later life.
In one study, patients who gave up for four weeks saw benefits for their liver function, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and were also at lower risk of developing diabetes and liver disease. Staff at New Scientist enjoyed benefits in a similar study.
I suspect that this would be unnecessary if you were truly being moderate with your drinking, but a good thing to do otherwise.
If you are otherwise healthy, enjoying alcohol in moderate amounts may benefit your heart, brain health and overall longevity.
It is absolutely essential that we get real about whether we are being moderate with alcohol though.
More or less a glass of wine each evening, but not every evening, is moderate.
Going over that occasionally probably won’t do you too much harm either, if you are otherwise diligent about health. Being in tune with your body and its response to different amounts of alcohol will help you to call it.
The best options from an all round perspective are pure spirits with healthy mixers, champagne and wine.
- Get really honest with yourself about whether the way you use alcohol is healthy. If it isn’t, take action.
- Avoid drinking if you struggle with getting adequate sleep, or are serious about an exercise/diet programme (at least for the transition period).
- Hack your hangover using l-cysteine and vitamin C prior to and following alcohol.
- Select pure spirits (either on the rocks, or with a healthy mixer such as kombucha, or fresh melon and berries), white wine, champagne, and red wine over liqueur, cocktails, cider and beer.
- If you have been overdoing it with alcohol until now, consider having a dry month.
For an alternative awesome guide to enjoying alcohol healthily, check out this article by Nerd Fitness.
What tools do you use to moderate alcohol intake? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!