Alcohol is good for your heart

By Philip Brewer on 11 August 2007 (Updated 18 August 2007) 12 comments

After quitting smoking, having one or two drinks a day is the best single thing you can do for your cardiovascular health. It's better than losing weight, better than getting more exercise, and better than lowering your cholesterol.

As the evidence mounted over the past few years, I've grown more and more grumpy with the medical community's hesitance to support moderate alcohol consumption. After doing some research, though, I guess I understand.

The benefits to alcohol consumption are absolutely clear. Drinking five to six drinks a week reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death by 79 percent. It cuts heart attack risk, both in men who exercise and eat right and in men with hypertension. It also protects against type-2 diabetes and gallstones. In middle-aged women, moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with a 17% reduction in death from all causes.

But it's that "all causes" thing that turns the medical community into cowards on this issue. Death and injury rates due to things like accidents, suicide, and liver disease start increasing even at moderate levels of drinking (one to two drinks a day) and spike up very quickly with higher alcohol consumption.

Although there are probably some additional benefits from the antioxidents found in red wine and some beers, most of the benefit seems to come from the alcohol itself, which both raises HDL cholesterol and reduces dangerous blood clots, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, which goes on to talk about other good things associated with moderate alcohol consumption:

The social and psychological benefits of alcohol can't be ignored. A drink before a meal can improve digestion or offer a soothing respite at the end of a stressful day; the occasional drink with friends can be a social tonic. These physical and psychic effects may contribute to health and wellbeing.

I can see why health experts don't want to give people the idea that having a couple of drinks is a substitute for a healthy lifesetyle, nor find themselves acting as enablers for an alcoholic in denial. But even after looking at those downsides, I wish they'd be a bit more willing to recommend light-to-moderate drinking for its health benefits. It would save lives.

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Guest's picture
alberto

Nice post. Sometimes it's difficult to understand the Medical Community; they often don't come out and publicize things based on political correctness or other agenda. The information you post is not surprising to me. Having grown up in Spain it used to be normal custom and tradition to always have lunch with some wine. One or two glasses. Children were even given a taste of it because people believed it was good for them. This was very moderate consumption. You didn't get up from the table drunk! You went on with your daily routine and so it was. Those traditions changed drastically with the medical community warnings on alcohol abuse, which obviously can occur as it can with anything that goes beyond moderation. Hence, that little wine at lunch or dinner was changed for healthier coke and other soft drinks. As a nation we've grown way fatter, with increases in heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, etc., and all the other ills that accompany the so-called modern societies, while alcohol abuse remains the problem it has always been and will be in all such nations. Moderate alcohol abuse is no panacea; nothing is on its own, but the medical community must be frank on its findings and explain proper, natural uses of "healthy" substances without the restraint of political correctness.

Justin Ryan's picture

I raise my 7AM gin and tonic to you, Phillip!

In all seriousness, it does seem that at least in the US, alcohol always gets a bad rap. Perhaps it's the country's teetotaling past (it's only been about 75 years since Prohibition), the seeming everpresence of DUIs, binge drinking college kids, or some combination of them all, but it seems like you can't say a decent word about having a drink without coming across as alcoholic. I think there would be a lot less problems with drinking if the stigma attached to it were lifted, and responsible consumption were encouraged. (As I understand it, other countries don't have anywhere near the problem with drunken teenagers that the US does, because there's no novelty to it.)

I think a glass or two of wine with dinner, a martini at lunch, or an after dinner scotch would be a great tradition to encourage, and might just cut out some of the beer-chugging, tequila-shooting partying that gives drinking such a bad name.

Philip Brewer's picture

How does a child learn how to drink responsibly? By having proper role models, and by beginning to drink in a protected environment.

Certainly by the time they're 14 or so--perhaps even younger--children should be allowed to drink alcohol when it's situationally appropriate--a small glass of wine at a holiday feast, half a beer at a summer picnic, etc. The amounts and frequency should go up gradually, so that by the time they're 17 or 18, children are treated as adults in mealtime wine or beer drinking. By the time they're 21 (and can legally buy their own booze), they'll have been drinking for so long it should hardly even count as a rite of passage.

And yet, if you raise your children that way, (in the US at least) you're in real danger of negative attention from the child welfare authorities.

Of course things should be very different in a household where a family member has an alcohol problem.

Guest's picture

I agree that alcohol has some specific health benefits, but there are also some specific health risks with alcohol. On the whole, it is very unclear if the overall benefits outweigh the overall risks. For an "alcohol is bad" viewpoint, see Dr. Mercola's view on alcohol. For a more neutral view with both benefits and risks, see Wikipedia's article on alcohol consumption and health.

Philip Brewer's picture

I think the evidence is clear on the benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. It's certainly true that excessive alcohol consumption is harmful, and that the threshold where drinking becomes immoderate is pretty low--you get pretty much all of the benefit after one drink a day, and the harmful effects are apparent if you exceed two drinks a day.

There is some evidence that certain cancers are associated with even moderate alcohol consumption, although the associations are much less certain than those supporting the cardiovascular benefits. (In particular, proper nutrition seems to prevent the harm in at least some cases.)

If you have an alcohol problem, you should definitely stay away from it. If you're already at very low risk from cardiovascular disease, the benefits may not outweigh the risks. But I think the evidence is clear that for most people, moderate alcohol consumption is a clear win.

Guest's picture
Richard

Nice post. I'm one of many people on the fence about the benefits and harms of moderate alcohol consumption. Most recently I've been trying to drink no more than what the medical community deems acceptable - about 12 drinks per week for men. One of the things that concerns me is the numerous studies that show direct correlations between alcohol consumption, even minimal, and certain cancers and diseases -- particularly in women. It's worth a serious look. And, while I don't disagree with your posting, the off-the-cuff intro paragraph could be very misleading.

Guest's picture

While there are some actual internal processes that seem to be positively affected by moderate consumption(1-2 drinks a day), I really don't get the sense that the body of evidence actually proves anything about alcohol use in general.

The common criticism against most of the positive alcohol studies are that a lot of people lumped in as abstainers negatively effect the results. Specifically, people who because of addiction problems, health reasons, disabilities have quite drinking. I have seen research that suggests that taking those type of people out of the study then the curve becomes a lot more "J" shaped rather than "U" shaped. No one argues for heavy consumption though.

The other argument is that like most studies they prove a correlation not the cause. EG - Maybe moderate drinkers tend to have more wealth, education, or some other quality that cause the positive effects, not the actual drinking itself.

It seems like more quality research and study needs to happen, IMO.

Philip Brewer's picture

Tweezing out what is cause and what is effect is always hard in this sort of analysis. However, the Harvard School of Public Health page that I referenced does have this to say:

...moderate drinkers were more likely than non-drinkers or heavy drinkers to be at a healthy weight, to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night, and to exercise regularly. Researchers have statistically accounted for such confounders, and they do not come close to accounting for the relationship between alcohol and heart disease. This, plus the clearly beneficial effects of alcohol on cardiovascular risk factors, makes a compelling case that alcohol itself, when used in moderation, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

I haven't checked the original research to see how well they handle things like "former abusers of alcohol who are now non-drinkers" skewing the results. I'm sure there'll be more studies going forward.

Guest's picture
street

Good for your heart perhaps... But your liver pays the ultimate price.

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medbook's picture
medbook

Yes It's real. In my life (I live in Sicily, Italy) my family have always used to let me drink a little glass of wine since I was a child.

I know there are a lor of science evidences about wine health benefits but the only thing I can say is that my granny has 93 years, she is very alive and never had an health disease...her secret is to drink a glass od Sicilian red wine for lunch.

Guest's picture
Aaron

-bump-

The two oldest people I know (my grandmother, 90 and my great aunt, 93) are both drinkers. Sometimes my grandmother even drank whiskey straight. Neither of them have any health issues, and neither of them are on any medications. Both mow their own yards, plant their own gardens, and live alone just fine. That's in no way scientific, but it's worked in my family for longer than record shows, I'm gonna keep doing it.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am Diabetic taking Victoza. I drink daily and stopped for view days. My blood sugar during that time went over 200. Had my first drink again and it dropped to 140