We'll Drink to That: The alcohol/health conundrum comes down to common sense

Most New Year’s resolutions are made with one thing in mind: health.  However, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell what is good or bad for one’s health. One day, scientists will shout from the parapets about the wondrous benefits of some food or drink; on the next, they will gallop through the streets warning of the impending apocalypse from consuming that very same thing. There is perhaps no product that invites this type of perplexity more than alcohol.

Researchers believe humans have used alcohol for tens of thousands of years. In 1953, several world renowned anthropologists evaluated evidence that suggested beer may have even preceded bread as a staple of nutrition for ancient cultures. By the time of the rise of Egyptian civilization (c. 4,000 BC), alcohol was regularly used for casual, celebratory, religious, and funerary occasions. Indeed, the Egyptians even noted the value of moderation.

While it is unclear when people began to use alcohol for medicinal purposes, many agree that Hippocrates—the so-called father of modern medicine—prescribed it as a remedy for a variety of ailments. Often, in the ancient world, it was understood that alcohol was safer than water, as water was a common incubator for many diseases. Throughout the following centuries, people persisted in uncritically accepting the medicinal quality of alcohol despite their simultaneous awareness that its overuse could cause serious negative consequences. Increasing awareness (and perhaps incidence) of alcoholism in the nineteenth century gave birth to a new era of alcohol research that has brought us into the current era of confusion.

So: is alcohol bad for us or not? Most studies conclude that alcohol is good for the average person. Of the roughly three-quarters of Americans who drink, ninety percent do so in moderation, and live better than those who do not drink. The most positive effect among moderate drinkers is alcohol’s ability to reduce stress. And there seem to be other benefits, as well.  

Drinking has been shown to have positive effects on the heart. One study has shown that drinking between three and five drinks per day for men and one to two and a half for women substantially lowers the risk of ischemic heart disease. Ischemic heart disease occurs as a result of the narrowing of blood vessels, which reduces blood and oxygen supply to the brain. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that only one drink per day for women and two for men may increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. “Good” cholesterol breaks down and removes “bad” cholesterol. This, in addition to the blood-thinning effects of alcohol, decreases the chance of blood clotting within vessels, which can cause strokes, embolisms, ischemia, or heart attacks.

Moderate consumption has been shown in some studies to have benefits for the liver and brain, too. A study in the Journal of Hepatology showed that consuming one or two servings of alcohol per day reduces by half the chances of developing hepatitis for those with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD), the most common form of liver disease in the United States. Other studies indicate that moderate drinkers suffer less from clinical depression than non- or heavy drinkers. Alcohol has been employed as a treatment for a host of psychological problems among the elderly, the demographic most at risk for depression among Americans.

So as you enter the New Year, you need not eliminate alcohol consumption from your life. While consumption entails some risks—so, too, does crossing the street—experts say a little moderation will likely lead to many years of enjoyment.



Rob Vanwey is with the Global Group.

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