There has been a fuss about alcohol being good or bad for the health. On one hand, people believe that moderate amounts have been linked to health benefits. On the other, some say it is addictive and highly toxic — especially when you drink too much. The truth is that the health effects of alcohol vary between individuals and depend on the amount and type of alcohol consumed.
We have decided to clear the air by providing answers to questions on alcohol in relation to your health.
WHAT IS ALCOHOL?
Alcohol is the ingredient found in beer, wine and spirits that causes drunkenness. Ethanol is the main type of alcohol present in alcoholic drinks produced by fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugar.
Alcohol is classified as a depressant, which means it acts to depress the central nervous system at high doses. At lower doses, alcohol can act as a stimulant, inducing feelings of euphoria and talkativeness, but drinking too much alcohol at one session can lead to drowsiness, respiratory depression (where breathing becomes slow, shallow or stops entirely), coma or even death.
TYPES OF ALCOHOL
There are three major types of alcohol for human use- Ethanol, Methanol and Isopropanol. Ethanol is the only alcohol that is safe for drinking. The other two types of alcohol are mostly employed in cleaning and manufacturing. Both methanol and isopropanol are poisonous to humans because our bodies metabolize them as toxic substances which cause liver failure. Drinking even a small amount of methanol or rubbing the alcohol can be fatal.
However, there are different types of alcoholic drinks, and some of them contain more alcohols than others. The measure of alcohol content, or the concentration of alcohol in a drink is called Alcohol by volume (ABV). Alcohol by volume is the number of milliliters of ethanol per 100 milliliters (or 3.4 fl.oz.) of an alcoholic drink.
Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage worldwide. It is believed that after water and tea, beer is the most consumed drink in the world. Beer is also most likely the oldest alcoholic drink in history. A standard beer, whether it be a lager or an ale, has between 4% to 6% Alcohol By Volume (ABV), although some beers have higher or lower concentrations of alcohol.
Wine is another popular and ancient alcoholic beverage. Standard wine has less than 14% ABV. Champagne, the most well-known sparkling wine, has an alcohol concentration of about 10% to 12%.
Gin is a spirit made from juniper berries. It can have anywhere from 35% to 55% ABV.
Brandy is distilled wine. The concentration of alcohol in brandy ranges from 35% to 60%. For example, one famous brandy, Cognac, has 40% ABV.
Whiskey is a spirit made from distilled, fermented grain. The ABV of whiskey ranges from 40% to 50%.
Tequila is another popular spirit. Its main ingredient is the Mexican agave plant, and its alcohol concentration is usually about 40% ABV.
Vodka, a liquor usually made from fermented grains and potatoes, has a standard alcohol concentration of 40% ABV in the United States.
IS ALCOHOL GOOD OR BAD FOR HEALTH?
A number of studies have come out in support of moderate alcohol consumption because of its potential health benefits only to be countered by similar studies arguing that it’s actually more harmful than beneficial.
There are other related factors, such as your age, gender and overall health that can further complicate the issue.
According to a new study by Tufts University, drinking alcohol in moderation might help keep bones strong in men and postmenopausal women, who have lower levels of estrogen (which helps to maintain bone mass). The study found a stronger association between bone density and drinking beer and wine, compared to liquor, indicating that it’s more than just alcohol that boosts bone health.
However, women who drink even one alcoholic beverage a day have an increased risk of some cancers (especially breast cancer), according to new research done at Oxford on nearly 1.3 million women.
The bottom line is, alcohol in moderation, can be part of a healthy lifestyle. But you must weigh your personal risks; For instance, if you have a family history of cancer, you have to opt for soft drinks or mock tails.
BENEFITS OF ALCOHOL
Yes! Drinking alcohol can be beneficial to your health. However, the amount taken determines whether you get its benefits or you get its bad effects.
On the Heart
Some research has found that red wine improved cardiovascular health. Moderate alcohol drinking reduces the risk of developing and dying of heart disease. It reduces the possibility of having ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow). It also reduces the risk of diabetes which is a major risk factor for heart diseases.
Controlling Cholesterol levels
Some studies show that light to moderate red wine consumption has been linked to increased levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or good cholesterol, which may be helpful in preventing blood clots that can reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Red wine contains a compound called resveratrol that reportedly has antioxidant properties and is good at fighting pathogens that occur in the body. Also, beer may help manage your cholesterol. According to a recent study, moderate beer consumption may slow the decrease of HDL cholesterol over time.
For Bone Health
As earlier mentioned, a study by Tufts University found a stronger association between bone density and drinking beer and wine, compared to liquor, indicating that it’s more than just alcohol that boosts bone health.
However, moderate beer drinkers are 38 percent less likely to have osteoporosis and had a 20 percent lower risk of hip fractures than non-drinkers according to the Journal of the American Medical Association and Osteoporosis International. A possible reason being that the dietary silicon found in beer plays a role in the growth and development of both bone and connective tissues.
A new study led by University of Pittsburgh researchers reveals that moderate amounts of alcohol consumed in a social setting can enhance positive emotions and social bonding and relieve negative emotions among those drinking. Going out to have a drink may play a role in improving social cohesion, given its long association with human social activities.
Keep in mind that while light to moderate drinking can be beneficial, it isn’t risk free. For instance, even light drinkers of alcohol have increased risks of some cancers such as breast cancer and esophageal cancer.
EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL ON YOUR HEALTH
The truth is when alcohol is consumed in excess, the negatives tends to outweigh any potential health benefits.
On the Liver
The liver is the organ that neutralizes various toxic substances you consume. For this reason, your liver is particularly vulnerable to damage by alcohol intake.
Alcohol can cause a disease known as alcoholic hepatitis which is an acute or chronic inflammation of the liver that occurs as a result of direct effect of alcohol on the liver cells leading to the death of liver tissues. This disease develops in about one-third of heavy or binge drinkers of alcohol and it appears more common in men than women.
Alcoholic cirrhosis is another liver disease caused by alcohol in excess. It is estimated that about 20% of chronic alcoholics in the United States suffer from alcoholic cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is irreversible and associated with many serious health problems. In advanced cirrhosis, a liver transplant may be the only option.
On the Brain
Alcohol reduces communication between brain cells. This is a short-term effect responsible for many of the symptoms of being drunk.
Moreover, binge drinking may even lead to a blackout, characterized by memory loss, or amnesia, during a heavy drinking episode. These effects are only temporary, but chronic alcohol abuse may cause permanent changes in your brain, often leading to impaired brain function.
On the Heart
While moderate alcohol consumption may reduce your risk of heart disease, heavy or binge drinking may increase it. Excessive drinking weakens the heart muscle and can prevent it from pumping blood properly. So alcohol abuse can lead to serious cardiovascular conditions such as congestive heart failure.
On the Body
Moderate drinking is linked to reduced weight gain, whereas heavy drinking is linked to increased weight gain. Alcohol is the second most calorie-rich nutrient after fat. Therefore, excessive drinking causes increase in body weight as well as protruding belly.
Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of birth defects in the United States. Heavy drinking early in pregnancy is particularly risky for the developing baby. In fact, it may have adverse effects on development, growth, intelligence and behavior of the baby which may affect the child for the rest of its life.
Certain cancers have been linked to excessive alcohol intake. One in particular is hepatocellular cancer, which is a cancer of the liver. Certain esophageal cancers and gastrointestinal cancers have also been related to excessive alcohol use. Excessive alcohol can damage cells in the body. When the cells try to repair themselves, DNA changes occur that can lead to cancer and disease.
WHAT AMOUNT OF ALCOHOL IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH?
Now to answer the big question.
Many studies and most health guidelines suggest that moderate drinking a day is safe.
Moderate drinking for healthy adults generally means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
Examples of one drink include:
- Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
- Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
- Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)
When you know you have crossed the border line and now considered as a heavy drinker is having more than 4 drinks on any day or 14 per week for men and more than 3 drinks on any day or 7 per week for women.
There are some conditions where it is advised to avoid alcohol altogether. They include;
- When you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant
- When you’ve been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol addiction, or you have a strong family history of alcoholism
- When you’ve had a hemorrhagic stroke (when a blood vessel in your brain leaks or ruptures)
- When you have liver or pancreatic disease
- Women at risk for breast cancer
- When you have heart failure or you’ve been told you have a weak heart
- When taking prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol
The impact of alcohol on one’s health depends entirely on the individual.
Drinking small amounts of alcohol especially of red wine has various health benefits.
On the other hand, alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are likely to occur. If you enjoy alcohol and don’t binge, there is no compelling reason to avoid it. Just keep in mind that your cancer risk may increase regardless of how much you are drinking.
Generally, the effects of alcohol on your health outweighs the benefits. Therefore it is safer for your health sake to either get your alcohol consumption under control, or abstain completely from it.