Can alcohol be healthy?

Wine and other alcoholic drinks are either touted as a cure-all, or something to skip altogether. Best Health sorts out the mixed messages

By Julia Slater

Can alcohol be healthy?

Sharing confidences with a friend as the sun goes down, savouring a gourmet meal at a four-star restaurant on a date, unwinding at the end of a stressful weekday: There are times in life that almost seem to demand a glass of Shiraz or Pinot Grigio. Research touting the health benefits of alcohol has made it easy to down a second glass, as well. But recent headlines linking alcohol consumption to breast cancer and heart disease suggest that we should be locking, not restocking, our liquor cabinets. What to do? We reviewed reports and peer-reviewed studies available from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, among other sources, to find out whether to order that glass—or take a pass.

The good news

Many well-designed studies have shown the benefits of “moderate drinking”—or, to be more precise, one drink a day:

  • The strongest evidence points to the heart benefits. Alcohol lowers the risk of death from cardiovascular causes, such as heart attacks and ischemic stroke.
  • Alcohol raises your levels of HDL (good cholesterol), and helps prevent blood clot formation.
  • Red wine has a substance called resveratrol, which may provide additional heart benefits.
  • Alcohol may help to improve cognitive function, and lower the risk of developing gallstones and type 2 diabetes.

The bad news

Experts warn that:

  • Any heart benefits of one alcoholic drink a day for women are wiped out if you drink more than that.
  • Alcohol interacts badly with many commonly used medications, including pain relievers and antidepressants.
  • A nightcap can actually disrupt your sleep.
  • There’s evidence that two or more drinks a day cause a modest increase in your risk of breast cancer.
  • Heavy drinking can have other negative health effects, including heart damage, liver scarring and mouth, throat and colon cancers.

The bottom line

Non-drinkers should not start drinking alcohol simply for medicinal purposes. A woman in her 30s, for example, who exercises regularly and eats a healthy diet would already be doing her heart a huge favour.

If you are at risk for heart disease, discuss the possible benefits of alcohol with your doctor. The decision should be based on your own health concerns. Whatever you decide, cheers to your good health!

How much, exactly?

For women, drinking moderately means no more than a daily:

  • 5 oz (142 mL) glass of wine;
  • 12 oz (341 mL) glass of beer; or
  • 1.5 oz (43 mL) glass of spirits.

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Best Health Magazine, Spring 2008

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