Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol Consumption: Overview

Alcohol has been used medicinally throughout recorded history and even as early as 1900 there was evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol was associated with a decrease in the risk of heart attack (coronary artery disease) in particular.  The evidence of health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption has continued to grow consistently since then.

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The Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism wrote that "Numerous well-designed studies have concluded that moderate drinking is associated with improved cardiovascular health," and the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association reported that "The lowest mortality occurs in those who consume one or two drinks per day."  In addition, a World Health Organization Technical Committee on Cardiovascular Disease concluded that the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and reduced death from heart disease could no longer be doubted.

Function; Why it is Recommended

What would explain the apparent benefits of alcohol consumption?

  • Alcohol improves blood lipid profile by increasing HDL ("good") cholesterol and decreasing LDL ("bad") cholesterol
  • Alcohol decreases risk of thrombosis (blood clotting) by reducing platelet aggregation and fibrinogen (a blood clotter), and increasing fibrinolysis (the process by which clots dissolve)
  • Alcohol reduces coronary artery spasm in response to stress
  • It increases coronary blood flow
  • It reduces blood pressure
  • It reduces blood insulin level
  • It increases estrogen levels

A great number of studies have found that moderate drinkers also tend to have better health and live longer than those who are either abstainers or heavy drinkers.  In addition to having fewer heart attacks and strokes (less than half, The American Heart Association has reported), moderate consumers of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine or distilled spirits or liquor) are generally less likely to suffer hypertension or high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, Alzheimer's disease and even the common cold.

Sensible drinking also appears to be beneficial in reducing or preventing diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, bone fractures and osteoporosis, kidney stones, digestive ailments, stress and depression, poor cognition and memory, Parkinson's disease, hepatitis A, pancreatic cancer, macular degeneration (a major cause of blindness), angina pectoris, duodenal ulcer, erectile dysfunction, hearing loss, gallstones, liver disease and poor physical condition in elderly.


What is meant by 'moderation'?  Medical researchers generally describe moderation as one to three drinks per day.  It appears that consuming less than about half a drink per day is associated with only very small health benefits.  Four or five drinks may be moderate for large individuals but excessive for small or light people.  Because of their generally smaller size and other biological differences, the typical woman should generally consume 25-30% less than the average man.  And, of course, recovering alcoholics, those with any adverse reactions to alcohol, and those advised against drinking by their physicians should abstain.

A standard drink is defined as a 12 ounce can or bottle of beer, a five ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor (either straight or in a mixed drink).  According to Harvard scientists, "The key to healthy, moderate consumption is a regular, one to three drinks per day pattern."  Drinking a week's worth of alcohol over a period of a few hours would be unhealthful – even dangerous – and clearly is to be avoided.

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Red wine intake was associated with reduced asthma severity in a study of adults in England. [Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2001;164(10): pp.1823-1828]

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