s drinking alcohol healthy or unhealthy? Is red wine the best alcohol for your health? These are some of the questions that commonly come up so today, I’m breaking down what you need to know about how alcohol impacts your mind and body—for better and worse—and some no-nonsense info about which alcohol is best for your health.
HOW ALCOHOL EFFECTS YOUR HEALTH
First things first. There is no good reason to start drinking just for the potential health benefits. We know that other lifestyle changes—eating nourishing foods, staying active, getting sufficient sleep, and coping with stress healthfully—can bring greater health benefits than light or moderate drinking. So don’t start drinking if you’re not a drinker. If you do drink, it’s important to keep in mind what moderate drinking officially means: A glass a day for women and two for men. Here’s what you’re looking at:
12 oz of beer
5 oz of wine
1.5 oz of spirits
It probably goes without saying, but just in case, keep in mind that if you enjoy a good pour, you may be going above the limits. (I hate being the bearer of bad news!) Proof matters, too. Say you’re drinking wine that has more than 12% alcohol; that would be equivalent to more than a glass, even if you’re sticking to the 5-oz limit. While we’re on the bad news, it’s considered risky to save your drinks for Friday happy hour. Basically, anything above three drinks a day for women and four for men, or more than seven drinks a week for women and 14 for men is considered “heavy” drinking. In health terms, this amount can raise your risk of problems considerably.
POTENTIAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF MODERATE DRINKING
The biggest health benefit you get from drinking is an increase in your healthy HDL cholesterol levels. (Staying active and quitting smoking if you currently smoke can also bump up this number.) (1) This may explain why moderate drinking may reduce the risk of heart disease. (2) You’ll get the HDL boost from any form of alcohol, but wine may bring some added benefits. Wine contains antioxidant compounds that might protect blood vessels and your heart from free radical damage. (3)
Wine is also the drink of choice on the MIND diet, which is a mashup between the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet. It was designed to benefit memory and delay dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and studies are very promising. One study found that people who closely adhered to the eating principles had the cognitive skills of people 7 ½ years younger (!!!) compared to those who were more lax. (3) Since participants in MIND Diet research are older adults, the plan recommends that both men and women stick to one drink a day because older men don’t metabolize alcohol as well as younger men. It’s also worth mentioning that the MIND diet is an overall eating pattern that includes a glass of wine, but studies don’t measure the health benefits of wine alone.
THE DRAWBACKS OF DRINKING
OK, guys, you knew this was coming!! Even just a drink a day has been linked with cancer. According to the NIH National Cancer Institute, the risk for esophageal cancer and breast cancer rise with this level of alcohol consumption. Compared to teetotalers, drinkers are also at higher risk of colorectal cancer, liver cancer, and head and neck cancer. Studies also suggest alcohol consumption may raise the risk of melanoma and pancreatic cancer. (4)
Alcohol breaks down into toxic compounds that are thought to damage DNA. It also creates free radicals—molecules that destabilize cells and make them susceptible to cellular damage. Because alcohol impairs your ability to absorb antioxidants and other nutrients, the damage creates a double whammy because you might not have a complete army of soldiers to mount a healthy defense. Alcohol also raises your estrogen levels, which is thought to be related to its impact on breast cancer risk.
Alcohol can also raise blood pressure levels, and if you have diabetes, it can lead to low blood sugar levels, especially for those taking insulin. (5) There’s also the fact that your decision-making skills are impaired with increasing alcohol levels so you might decide to participate in other risky behaviors, like driving while under the influence, getting in a fight, or having risky sex. Unintentional injuries, such as getting in a car accident, are the third leading cause of death in the US, right behind heart disease (number one) and cancer (number two). As a healthcare professional, it’s my duty to let you know the full picture!
4 TIPS FOR STAYING IN A HEALTHY ALCOHOL RANGE
I’m not going to lie: I enjoy a glass of wine or a martini sometimes, and sometimes, I enjoy more than one! So I don’t always live by the one and done rule myself. But if you routinely find yourself in the heavy drinking zone (above 7 drinks per week for women and 14 for men), I offer you these ideas for cutting back:
Have some booze-free nights, whether at home or out with friends or both.
Skip the first round. I’ve shared this tip with many of my clients who have successfully implemented it! If you think about it, it’s way easier to skip the beer, cocktail or glass of wine when things are just getting going so try holding out!
Drink water in between glasses. This helps pace your drinking so you hopefully drink less and it provides hydration. Dehydration is one of the prime reasons you experience hangover symptoms so you’ll want to do this if it’s going to be a long night with alcohol involved.
Schedule social activities that don’t involve food or booze. Make a date for coffee or tea, go to a museum or a movie, or make plans around an activity, like a walk, a run, or spin class.
WHICH ALCOHOL IS BEST FOR YOUR HEALTH?
Though it appears that wine is the best alcohol for health, I think it’s always important to filter advice to what makes sense to YOU. If you don’t like wine, there’s no reason to switch to it just for the health perks. As I said, any alcohol gives you a slight HDL advantage and it’s not a good idea to drink any alcohol in the name of health.
Instead, focus on how much you’re drinking and if you like cocktails, pay attention to the sugary mixers. If you routinely go above added sugar intake, that can raise your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and make it harder to manage your weight.
If you accidentally had a wee bit too much to drink, or you anticipate this might happen at some point, check out my hangover survival guide!
Want to geek out on the science with me? Check out the references below!