Healthy Reads

Alcohol: Is It Beneficial or Harmful?

Posted by Susan Scharpf, M.D. on Mar 2, 2016

For many people, wine, beer and cocktails are important when they're winding down or relaxing with family and friends. But as people become more aware of potential health issues, they often wonder if drinking alcohol can be a detriment to their long-term health.

As with many things when it comes to health care, the answer isn't always cut and dry. 

alcohol-is-it-harmful-or-beneficial.jpgStudies have shown that there are many benefits to moderate alcohol consumption with few increased risks. In fact, moderate drinking generally leads to lower mortality rates and a healthy lifestyle.

In terms of U.S. standards, "moderate" in this context means up to one drink per day for women and up to two per day for men. One drink is generally described as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Positive Impacts to Heart Health 

The heart is one area where people can truly benefit from moderate drinking. When compared to heavy drinking or to those who abstain, moderate drinking decreases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and ischemic stroke by up to 40 percent, and that's especially true for older adults and people with CHD risk factors.

The benefits, most studies say, apply to all beverages. Resveratrol, which is a beneficial substance in red wine, is not a factor since the quantity needed for significant impact cannot be consumed in wine.

But there are other areas where moderate alcohol use can be beneficial, including the lowering of a person's risk for gallstones and diabetes mellitus.

At this point,the effect alcohol has on dementia is unclear, though several studies have demonstrated a lower risk of developing dementia and less decline in cognitive function with moderate use compared to simple abstention.

Potential Health Problems

The picture isn't all positive, though. In fact, there are a number of potential harms even with moderate drinking. Alcohol use, for example, is associated with an increased risk of some types of cancer, including head, neck and digestive tract (especially for those who smoke).

For women, breast cancer risk climbs along with alcohol consumption. Use of postmenopausal hormones increases the risk too, while folic acid supplements may help mitigate that risk. And in diabetics, drinking can worsen neuropathy and induce hypoglycemia.

There are short-term downsides to alcohol use as well, which include the possibility of dehydration, decreased vitamin A in the skin and an increased caloric consumption.

The Serious Risks of Heavy Consumption

Heavy alcohol consumption (three drinks per occasion for women or over seven per week; four drinks per occasion for men or over 14 per week) is undeniably harmful. In the short term, overuse of alcohol contributes to accidents, injuries, violent behavior and suicide risk. In the long term, it leads to increased risk of liver disease, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, osteoporosis, stroke, gallstones and other health issues.

Likewise, binge drinking (four or more drinks on one occasion for women and five or more for men) is never a healthy option.

Is Abstention The Right Choice?

In some instances, abstention is indeed the best choice. Those instances include pregnant women, people with a personal or family history of alcoholism or breast cancer, and those who have had liver or pancreatic disease or a hemorrhagic stroke.

Though moderate drinking has health benefits, physicians never encourage people to start drinking or increase their alcohol consumption. You should always drink responsibly and talk to your physician to help you weigh the benefits and risks.

As we all try to figure out the best ways to practice a healthy lifestyle, especially when it comes to difficult topics like alcohol consumption, talking to a physician and gathering information can help tremendously.

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Topics: Lifestyle & Wellness

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