Or is the concept of “healthy drinking” just an oxymoron? (Photo: Getty Images)
It seems there’s a new headline every week touting a reason why drinking alcohol (in moderation) is good for health. (At this point, one would think that red wine was the cure for all disease.) But according to researchers from University College London, the benefits of alcohol consumption may be severely overstated.
For the study, published in the British Medical Journal, researchers analyzed data on the drinking habits of 52,891 adults who were interviewed about their average weekly alcohol consumption, as well as how much they drank in one day. Researchers found “little to no” health benefits of drinking alcohol, regardless of how much or little someone drank; any protective benefits of alcohol seemed limited to men between ages 50 and 64, and women age 65 and over.
Their reasoning: Previous research may have been skewed by selection bias. For example, former drinkers — some of whom were once heavy drinkers — were lumped in with people who had never been drinkers and labeled as “non-drinkers,” which could affect the results.
“There’s still much more work to be done on isolating the true effect of alcohol consumption on health,” study researcher Craig Knott tells Yahoo Health.
The new finding begs the question: Do we all need to become teetotalers to be our healthiest selves? Or are a few drinks here and there OK?
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You don’t need to give up your favorite pinot noir just yet, says Pamela W. Smith, MD, a Detroit-area physician who specializes in metabolic medicine. “Having a drink is not the worst thing in the world,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Of course, if someone is having six drinks a day, that’s a problem, but it really is all about moderation.”
While moderate drinking isn’t as healthy as eating an apple a day, Smith points out that drinking alcohol can indirectly boost health. Having one drink a day can help lower stress levels, which in turn can keep cholesterol, blood pressure, and overall health in check, she says.
However, Smith notes that drinking can lower the level of B vitamins in your body. The B complex (a.k.a. vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12) affects everything from your energy levels to the amount of free radicals in your body. That’s why she recommends that people who consume alcohol in moderation also take a daily B complex.
Of course, “moderation” is a relative term. While women tend to feel the effects of alcohol more easily than men, it’s not recommended that either sex exceed more than 10 drinks a week, says Joseph Pinzone, MD, CEO and medical director at AMAI, a wellness practice in Santa Monica, California, and assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA.
As for daily recommendations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women have no more than one drink a day, and that men have no more than two drinks daily. And yes, it does matter how those drinks are spaced out. “Drinking all 10 drinks at once would be considered binge drinking and would certainly put someone at risk for many health problems,” Pinzone tells Yahoo Health. While most of us are probably inclined to drink more on the weekend, Pinzone recommends not exceeding two drinks a day — even if you’re out on Saturday night.
So now that amount of alcohol is cleared up, what about type? Research hasn’t really shown if beer, wine, or hard alcohol is better, Smith says: “Wine has resveratrol in it, which is a good antioxidant, but really overall if the person is using the alcohol to relax a little bit, having beer, wine, or some sort of hard liquor in moderation is not an issue.”
Smith and Pinzone agree that non-drinkers shouldn’t suddenly take up the habit for its health benefits. But yes, it is possible to be healthy and still have a few drinks a week, they say.
As for future research on the subject, study researcher Knott says scientists will get a more accurate picture of alcohol’s health effects when they break study participants into age groups, as well as consider that alcohol consumption can change significantly over time.