In the latest installment of the “healthy or not?” dietary debate, alcohol is under the magnifying glass once again.
You’ve likely seen the contradictory reports and studies on alcohol over the years, some claiming a drink or even two a day can contribute to a long and healthy life, others saying any amount of alcohol can increase your risk of mortality. With all the back and forth, you could find a study to support your personal stance on alcohol, whatever that might be.
Now, for the first time since 1990, the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee — a team of 20 nationally recognized nutrition experts that’s tasked with reviewing the U.S. dietary guidelines every five years — is recommending a change to our alcohol consumption guidelines. Currently, the guidelines recommend drinking in moderation, defined as no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one a day for women.
Moving forward, they’re advising that the recommended limit for men be the same as women’s: No more than one drink a day. The reasoning behind this suggested change isn’t based on any new findings in particular, but rather an examination of the existing body of research on alcohol’s potential health risks and benefits. So, what does the science show?
Is Alcohol Good or Bad for You?
“There’s not much doubt that alcohol is toxic to living cells,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of Vital Plan. And research suggests that the more alcohol you expose your cells to, the greater the damage done.
Indeed, in their report, the advisory committee pointed to links between high levels of consumption and binge drinking — defined as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion for men, or four or more for women — and an increased risk of numerous illnesses including coronary heart disease, stroke, at least seven types of cancer, and a number of gastrointestinal issues including chronic liver disease and pancreatitis.
The ways by which alcohol can make us vulnerable to illness are many and varied. For instance:
- Excess alcohol causes changes in white and red blood cells and platelets that weaken the immune system and increase vulnerability to infectious diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
- Alcohol metabolizes into acetaldehyde in the body, a toxic chemical and probable carcinogen.
- Too much alcohol impairs the body’s ability to break down and absorb nutrients that might help fend off cancer, such as vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E, and carotenoids.
- Overconsumption of alcohol can lead to inflammation in the pancreas, liver, stomach, and more, and increase the risk of related illnesses.
And then there’s the indirect effects of excess alcohol consumption: It tends to go hand in hand with other lifestyle factors such as smoking, chronic stress, poor diet, and too little sleep and exercise, all of which have been linked with greater risk of illness and a shorter lifespan. Plus, drinking too much lowers inhibitions and increases the odds we’ll do stupidly dangerous stuff like drive drunk.
But what about all those claims that a drink a day is good for you? Well, there’s some validity to that, too.
Several studies have shown a correlation between light to moderate drinking (1-2 drinks a day) and reduced risk of coronary heart disease mortality. Experts point to a number of possible reasons for the benefits, including that moderate consumption may raise levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, and lower blood levels of a substance called fibrinogen that contributes to the formation of blood clots.
Moderate drinking also appears to reduce insulin resistance, an impaired response to the hormone insulin that manages blood sugar levels in the body and a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Studies suggest that drinking alcohol with a meal may improve how well your cells deal with blood sugar and cut the rise by as much as 37%.
An occasional drink can also take the edge off a stressful day, which has its own health benefits, says Dr. Rawls. “Stress is toxic. Because alcohol provides mild anxiolytic effects – meaning it reduces anxiety — it can be beneficial in small doses,” Dr. Rawls explains. “But the operative word is ‘small.’ As the dose increases, the benefits quickly give way to the toxic effects.”
Misunderstandings about appropriate drink size might also be responsible for some of the conflicting data on alcohol’s risks and benefits. In other words, what the average person reports as a normal-sized drink might in fact be twice (or more!) the amount experts consider a “standard drink,” which is 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. Here’s what that looks like in real life when you order at the bar:
- 12 fluid ounces of regular beer
- 8-9 fluid ounces of malt liquor
- 5 fluid ounces of table wine
- 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits like whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, and tequila
Size isn’t the only thing that matters. “Some sources of alcohol are more beneficial than others,” says Dr. Rawls. Red wine, for one, contains high levels of antioxidant phytochemicals (beneficial plant compounds) called polyphenols that may help protect the blood vessel linings in the heart. One polyphenol in particular, resveratrol, has been linked with a lower risk of inflammation and blood clotting and thus a healthier heart.
Beer also contains a number of beneficial polyphenols such as ferulic acid, catechins, epicatechins, proanthocyanidins, and quercetin. And the polyphenols in both red wine and beer are believed to interact positively with microbes in the gut microbiome, keeping “bad” microbes in check and contributing to greater microbial diversity, which is linked with lowering bad cholesterol levels and promoting a healthy weight.
The Bottom Line
Given all that, whether or not to drink alcohol in moderation really boils down to personal choice, says Dr. Rawls. “The recommendations of one drink per day are not unreasonable, but some people don’t tolerate even small doses of alcohol, and it’s easy for one drink a day to become two and even more on weekends,” he says. “Possibly a better choice is keeping the dose low, but also limiting consumption to intermittent use only.”
Another option: “It’s very easy to get all the benefits of the plant phytochemicals found in alcohol from herbal supplements,” says Dr. Rawls. “CBD (cannabidiol) from hemp would be at the top of my list.” More of his favorites include Japanese knotweed (a great source of resveratrol), rhodiola, reishi mushroom, turmeric, and gotu kola.
Ultimately, drinking alcohol is not a strict qualification for leading a healthy life, says Dr. Rawls. But if you do drink, moderation remains key to reaping any benefits and avoiding potential harm. And either way, adding more herbs to your daily routine is a safe, effective, and hangover-proof way to enjoy the health perks of all sorts of phytochemicals.
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