Alcohol Consumption - Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?
Most of us have been taught that drinking alcohol is bad for us, that it has negative consequences on our long-term health. Even so, the underlying belief that everything in moderation is ok has led most adults to accept drinking as a regular part of meals, social engagements and even work obligations. In fact social drinking is so engrained in our culture, that those who choose not to drink are typically questioned, teased and even rejected. Even though the majority of research has informed of us of the negative health effects of drinking, a vast amount of fairly new research is telling us something different. Drinking at low, moderate and even excessive levels (in some studies) can have a positive impact on our risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and age-related degenerative diseases. So what do we believe and how do we use this mixed health information to guide our consumption decisions? Lets first weigh the pros and cons and see where that takes us.
Powerful unparalleled antioxidant. Red wine in particular (10x more than white wine ) contains an antioxidant called resveratrol, also classified as a polyphenol. This particular antioxidant is unique because it can protect the brain and nervous system as well as fight free radicals, benefit the heart and arteries, reduce inflammation, prevent degenerative diseases, lower cancer risk, increase life span and more. Although some good supplements are now available, because resveratrol is soluble in alcohol, red wine is still your best bet for absorption.
Prevents diet-related formaldehyde production. For those who consume a lot of aspartame products or bottled fruit/vegetable juices, having a consistent amount of ethanol in the bloodstream may be beneficial. This is because these products contain free methanol, which absorbs in the body and then gets converted into formaldehyde, a dangerous toxin for the organs. Have a small amount of ethanol in the blood inhibits the conversion and thus can offer protection for those exposed to free methanol.
May help regulate blood sugar. A study published in the Journal of Biochemistry in 2008 found that the antioxidants in red wine were able to slow the passage of glucose through the small intestine, due to their ability to inhibit the activity of the enzyme alpha-glucosidase, and prevent a surge in blood sugar. This was also found to be true with tea, particularly black tea.
Cuts heart disease risk. Besides the heart benefits from the antioxidants found in red wine, a 10 year Spanish research study showed that men (not women) who consume large amounts of alcohol (3 to 11 shots per day) were able to cut their heart disease risk by 50%. While inconclusive, the study showed that alcohol tends to raise good cholesterol levels while preventing bad cholesterol accumulation in the arteries. Alcohol also acts as a blood thinner, which can prevent blood clotting.
Reduces stress. Low levels of alcohol consumption can help reduce stress and anxiety, producing positive psychological benefits. However, low/moderate levels are equivalent to 1 drink for women and 2 drinks for men according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture  and the Harvard School of Public Health. Anything above this can produce the opposite in relation to mental wellbeing.
Neurotoxin. There is no doubt about it that alcohol can poison the brain. During the intoxication process, alcohol causes improper functioning of the brain neurons, which results in the signs of drinking we are all accustomed to.
Causes hormonal imbalance. Alcohol consumption can cause malnutrition, which leads to a hormonal imbalance (impacting both testosterone and estrogen levels) and the possibility of sexual dysfunction, a disrupted reproductive system, infertility, and pregnancy complications.
Promotes cancer. Even though the antioxidant content in red wine can be beneficial for preventing cancer, heavy drinking (of any type of alcohol) contributes to an increased risk of several cancers including mouth/larynx/esophagus, liver, colon, pancreatic, lung and breast cancer (by more than 40%).
Cirrhosis of liver and heart. Cirrhosis of the liver prevents the liver from functioning properly as a result of the healthy tissue being replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis of the liver can lead to variceal bleeding, mental changes, kidney disease, diabetes, loss of muscle mass, reduced oxygen in the blood, increased risk of infections and more. Excessive drinking can also cause heart muscle damage.
Inflammation of stomach lining and compromised digestive system. Alcohol consumption can increase one’s risk of IBS, colon cancer, digestive disorders, leaky gut syndrome, diarrhea, constipation and ulcers. At the most basic level, alcohol’s acid content can cause stomach discomfort and also lead to heartburn when the acidic contents get passed into the esophagus. Eating before drinking is recommended.
Extreme dehydration. Drinking alcohol increases urination and causes you to lose too much water, electrolytes and minerals (much more than the amount of liquid you are drinking). This can lead to an array of health problems, bodily dysfunction and even death.
Weight gain. Alcohol is not only an appetite stimulant, but it’s also high in calories and sugar and can easily contribute to a weight problem for a regular drinker.
At the end of the day, how alcohol impacts you depends on your age, sex, family history, amount you consume, frequency of consumption and both existing and potential medical conditions. In almost all cases, heavy alcohol consumption will only lead to negative consequences for both your health and wellbeing. Most of the health benefit claims can be achieved in other ways - by consuming a healthy diet, avoiding toxins, exercising regularly and supplementing where necessary. With that said, if you are one of the few who are able to consume a small amount of alcohol (preferably red wine) on a regular basis and don’t have any preexisting health problems or risks, you may reap some benefit.
 (2008, April 3). Red wine, tea, may help regulate blood sugar in type 2 diabetes, research suggests. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080402212428.htm
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.smart-publications.com/articles/resveratrols-health-benefits-go-beyond-anti-aging
 Mercola, J. (2010, September 14). Why do researchers recommend this common drink that can poison your brain? Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/09/14/why-do-heavy-drinkers-outlive-nondrinkers.aspx
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 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/cancer/features/faq-alcohol-and-your-health?page=4
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/cirrhosis-liver?page=2
Kara wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Food & Nutrition.