The Alcohol Facts You Need to Know

Moderate alcohol consumption (meaning up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men) has some undeniable health benefits, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. On the downside, alcohol adds calories to your diet, interferes with the action of many medications, and can cause liver disease and raise blood pressure if you drink too much over long periods. In addition, alcohol is a leading cause of car accidents and has been linked to cancer.

Alcohol and heart disease

Many studies in both men and women suggest that having one or two alcoholic drinks per day reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30 to 50 percent. Exactly how alcohol prevents heart attack and stroke is not fully known but it is generally accepted that about half of the risk reduction comes from an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. The rest of the protection may be due to alcohol’s ability to prevent blood clots in the arteries.

Some studies have emphasized the protective effect of red wine in reducing the risk of heart attacks. Red wine contains the antioxidant resveratrol, which may protect blood vessels, reduce harmful LDL cholesterol and prevent blood clots. Many experts assert that wine (red or white), beer and spirits all have the same effect on heart health.

Alcohol and cancer

For women, there is a downside to moderate drinking. Daily consumption of even small amounts of alcohol appears to increase the risk of developing breast cancer. One study found that women who consume as little as one drink per day are at increased risk for cancers of the breast, liver, rectum and upper digestive tract. This study also found that each additional daily drink was associated with 11 more breast cancers per 1,000 women up to age 75.

Some research suggests that recent alcohol consumption may have a greater impact on cancer risk than alcohol consumption earlier in life. The risk may be particularly high for postmenopausal women taking estrogen, because alcohol increases blood levels of estradiol, a form of estrogen that promotes the development of breast cancer. Breast cancer risk also goes up in women drinkers who do not get enough folic acid.

Alcohol facts and advice

Here is some advice on drinking alcohol safely.

1. If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start. If you are a teetotaler, don’t begin drinking alcohol to reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes. Instead, take other steps to reduce your risk, such as lowering LDL cholesterol levels and blood pressure, quitting smoking, eating a diet low in saturated fat, exercising on a regular basis and maintaining a healthy weight.

2. If you’re a man, limit yourself to one or two alcoholic drinks a day and half that amount after age 65, because the body’s ability to process alcohol declines with age. One drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. This amount is enough to reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes, but it may have a negative effect on your ability to drive or operate machinery.

3. If you’re a woman, limit yourself to up to one alcoholic drink per day. If you are not at increased breast cancer risk, consuming a few drinks a week is probably safe and may protect the heart. If you are in a high-risk group for breast cancer, the American Cancer Society suggests that you consider drinking no alcohol at all.

4. Remember that heavy alcohol consumption is a health risk. Heavy drinking (more than two alcoholic drinks a day) can cause many life-threatening diseases, including hypertension, stroke, cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart) and cirrhosis of the liver.

5. Certain people should avoid alcohol altogether. They include people with high blood triglyceride levels, uncontrolled high blood pressure, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), liver disease or a rare inherited metabolic disorder called porphyria. Certain prescription or over-the-counter medications can also interact with alcohol, so ask your doctor whether you should avoid or limit alcohol intake because of the medication you are taking. Anyone with a past or current problem with alcohol also should not drink. And, of course, if you’ll be driving or operating heavy machinery, you should abstain from alcohol.

Meet Our Writer

HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.