To drink or not to drink, a health perspective
Holiday celebrations, happy hours, cocktail parties. It would be nice to think the alcoholic beverages ever-present at social events are good for us. The news media typically makes the most of new studies suggesting a link between a daily glass of wine and a healthier heart or other health benefits. Such positive headlines may lead you to develop an overly favorable view of alcoholic beverages, but they clearly have both pros and cons.
Alcohol and your heart
How alcohol is used largely determines whether it’s toxic or beneficial, says a March 2014 Mayo Clinic Proceedings review of alcohol and cardiovascular health. Light to moderate drinking (up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) has been linked with decreased risks for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and heart failure.
On the other hand, excessive drinking raises triglycerides and has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (a quivering or irregular heartbeat), and heart failure.
By no means do potential heart payoffs mean that nondrinkers should be encouraged to partake of wine or other alcoholic beverages.
“A lot more people die from heart disease due to addiction and consuming too much alcohol compared to the number of people who may benefit by consuming moderate amounts of red wine,” says Ronald Watson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized alcohol researcher and professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. One recent report estimated that worldwide, alcohol causes twice as many deaths from heart disease as it prevents.
So, is it the ethanol itself or other factors, namely polyphenols (which act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents) that provide the cardiac benefits of moderate alcohol consumption? Studies suggest both ethanol and polyphenols have positive effects, so drinks that contain both may give the biggest boost to heart health. Red wine typically contains more polyphenols than white wine and beer.
You certainly don’t need to drink alcoholic beverages to get beneficial polyphenols, which are in many plant foods. Beer gets its polyphenols from the grains (typically barley and hops) used to make the drink. Wine polyphenols come from grapes. So, even nonalcoholic beer and simple grape juice provide polyphenols.
The cancer conundrum
Not only is there increased risk of liver cancer among alcoholics and others who consume too much alcohol, but even low and moderate intake of any kind of alcohol may increase risk of several types of cancer, including mouth, throat, esophagus, colorectal, and breast cancers.
Just one alcoholic beverage a day can increase an individual’s risk of some cancers, including breast cancer, by about seven percent.
“Until about two years ago, it was thought that alcohol promoted cancer growth by suppressing immune cells that kill cancer,” Watson says. “Newer research shows that byproducts of alcohol metabolism, including the breakdown product acetaldehyde, can actually cause cancer, as well as suppress the body’s immune defenses against cancer.”
It’s never too soon to start thinking about the connection between alcohol and breast cancer risk. Animal studies suggest a mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy could increase her female baby’s risk of breast cancer later in life (not to mention risking immediate harm to the fetus).
Human studies suggest that the more alcohol you consume during adolescence and early adulthood, the more breast cancer risk increases compared to drinking alcohol when you’re older.
The bottom line
According to Harvard School of Public Health, certain people, including those with a family history of alcoholism, pregnant women, people with liver disease, and people taking medications that interact with alcohol, are better off abstaining.
For the rest of the population, balance and healthy habits are essential.
“If you consume alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation and know why you’re using it,” says Lynn Smith, MS, RDN, who guides nutrition programs for addiction recovery at InnerBalance Health Center in Loveland, Colorado. “If you’re using alcohol to relax every day, maybe what you really need is a good workout.”
Lastly, if you drink alcoholic beverages, eat plenty of folate-containing foods, such as spinach, romaine lettuce, peas, broccoli, and asparagus. Alcohol interferes with folate absorption and activity in the body, which might be one way alcohol can increase risk of certain cancers.