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Even Moderate Drinking Can Be Risky

Since the end of Prohibition nearly a century ago, popular culture has advanced the belief that, while heavy drinking is bad for your health, moderate drinking is, conversely, beneficial. For years, studies have publicized health benefits like lowered risk for heart disease and longer life expectancy. However, a 2016 analysis of 87 long-term studies discovered these health benefits came from “baked-in design flaws in how the research was conducted.” This sudden reversal has many wondering: how bad is moderate drinking for your health?

The answer was to come from a new, 10-year, $100 million study into moderate alcohol consumption and cardiovascular health. In early 2018, the study was axed after it was came to light that a majority of funding was provided by a nonprofit organization backed by the alcohol industry. In addition to study design flaws, leaked emails showed researchers discussing expectations of the positive health benefits of moderate drinking (researchers are supposed to remain neutral).

What Does This Mean For Moderate Drinkers?

A number of global studies actually point to the negative effects of even moderate drinking on individual health. A 2014 University of Oxford study determined alcohol, even in small quantities, can trigger symptoms of heart disease like high blood pressure, coronary artery calcification, stroke, and high body fat. In 2017, research published in the British Medical Journal showed that brain health could be affected by moderate drinking. Moderate drinkers, or those who drank five glasses of wine or four pints of beer a week (or less), exhibited a deterioration in the size of the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning). Moreover, brain damage was three times as likely to occur in moderate drinkers than non-drinkers.

What Is Moderate Drinking?

According to the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and two for men. Yet, evidence has demonstrated that the American disparity between male and female standards is too high. This guideline is based on the average weight for men (196 pounds) compared to that of women (169 pounds), though doesn’t accurately reflect the science behind gender differences. In Great Britain, moderate drinking standards are the same for men and women (112 g/week or 5-6 pints of beer/6-7 glasses of wine) as there’s only a 10% water weight difference between the two. Italy’s, Portugal’s, and Spain’s moderate drinking limits are, at most, 50% higher for men.

Despite having earned a more benign reputation than most drugs, alcohol is toxic to the body. The intensity of the effects of alcohol compound as more is consumed, but its effects on the body can be detected from the first drink. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine. Blood then travels to the liver, where a small amount is metabolized (and potentially cause damage like alcoholic hepatitis); the remainder circulates throughout the body, negatively impacting the kidneys, brain, heart, and lungs. Because alcohol affects people differently, long- and short-term damage may be determined by:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Weight and overall well-being
  • Amount of food consumed prior to drinking
  • Speed of alcohol consumption
  • Concurrent use of other drugs
  • Family history of alcohol use

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Is There A Safe Level Of Drinking?

One recent international study states that there are no health benefits from moderate drinking. Previous studies that indicate otherwise have been shown to include former heavy drinkers and those who abstained for health reasons, distorting study results. And while some studies have shown alcohol can be helpful in lowering clotting factors, the harm caused by alcohol outweighs the advantages.

Is there a safe, low-risk amount of drinking?

According to Aaron White, senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says, “There’s no magic number here. The effects of alcohol on health are very complicated. The effects are influenced by a wide range of factors, like body weight and sex, medications, rate of consumption, so it’s very hard to arrive at one single threshold below which everybody’s going to be safe from harm.”

Today, researchers recommend less than 100 g/week (or five drinks) of alcohol. More than this, and the risk of stroke increases by 14%, high blood pressure by 24%, heart failure by 9%, and fatal aortic aneurysm by 15%. For those who don’t drink, researchers (including those at the Centers for Disease Control) recommend continuing to abstain from alcohol for best, overall health.

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