Overwhelming evidence shows that Americans enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 85.6% of people ages 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, 69.5% reported that they drank in the past year, and 54.9% reported that they drank in the past month. According to Statista Research Department, in 2019, the total alcohol beverage sales totaled over $250 Billion dollars. We’ve all heard reports of the benefits of moderate drinking, like that a glass of red wine a day can potentially benefit heart health. . .and then we hear that no alcohol consumption is healthy. So, which is it? What health benefits, or pitfalls, can alcohol consumption have on the human body?
This past year was certainly a year that caused increased stress levels for people. Many people report that COVID-19 related stress led to an increase in their drinking habits. The National Institutes of Health shared that of those that shared about their alcohol consumption during 2020, 60% of people reported increased drinking but 13% reported decreased drinking, compared to pre-COVID-19. A significant amount (34%) reported binge drinking during the time period- that’s up from studies in 2019, where 25.8% of people ages 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past month, at the time of the study.
Despite evidence about alcohol consumption levels in Americans, researchers know surprisingly little about the risks or benefits of moderate alcohol use in healthy adults. One source pointed out that almost all studies of lifestyle, including diet, exercise, caffeine, and alcohol, rely on patient recall and truthful reporting of one’s habits over many years. These studies may indicate that two things may be associated with one another, but not necessarily that one causes the other. It may be that adults who are in good health engage in more social activities and enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol, but that the alcohol has nothing to do with making them healthier.
But, studies have shown that across the board, the more you drink, the higher the risk of certain types of cancer. Recent studies show that in 2020, 700,000 cases of cancer worldwide were attributed to alcohol consumption. Most of the cancer cases impacted men, and were esophageal or liver cancers, according to Harriet Rumgay, BSc, of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s Cancer Surveillance Branch in Lyon, France. And while heavy drinking patterns contributed most to these alcohol-related cancer cases, “we estimate that light to moderate drinking of the equivalent of around one or two alcoholic drinks per day was accountable for more than 100,000 cases of cancer in 2020,” wrote Rumgay and her colleagues in an article in The Lancet Oncology. The CDC backs up the study, stating that “All types of alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor, are linked with cancer. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.”
According to the CDC, drinking alcohol raises your risk of getting six kinds of cancer:
- Mouth and throat.
- Voice box (larynx).
- Colon and rectum.
- Breast (in women).
So What About Those Reports About Health Benefits?
According to several studies, moderate drinking may help the heart and circulatory system, and decrease the incidence of type 2 diabetes and gallstones. But, that isn’t necessarily true for everybody- your personal health dictates how high your risk factors may be. Alcohol also increases LDL (the bad cholesterol), as well as increases triglycerides, which can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Don’t forget the caloric impact alcohol has, which increases the risk for obesity, or that just one ounce of alcohol a day can cause fatty liver changes.
Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults generally means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. But, as with other foods and drinks- portion size matters.
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)
Red wine, in moderation, has long been thought of as heart healthy. The alcohol and antioxidants may help prevent coronary artery disease, which can lead to heart attacks, by protecting against cholesterol buildup. Resveratrol, a substance found in grape skins, might also prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and prevent blood clots.
But as with other studies on the effects of alcohol, study results were mixed. Some studies showed insignificant or no benefits from resveratrol in preventing heart disease. This again underlines how individual health factors may play a large role in the risk and benefits of alcohol consumption, and that more research is needed on the topic.
For those seeking the potential benefit of resveratrol, without increasing their risk for other health concerns, eating grapes or drinking grape juice might be a way to get resveratrol without drinking alcohol. Red and purple grape juices may have some of the same heart-healthy benefits of red wine. Other sources include peanuts, blueberries, and cranberries, but it is unknown how beneficial eating grapes or other foods might be compared with drinking red wine when it comes to promoting heart health. The amount of resveratrol in food and red wine can vary widely. Yet, you won’t increase your risk for cancer or other health issues from consuming peanuts, blueberries, and cranberries. In fact, the protein, found in peanuts (and other benefits of nuts), as well as the antioxidants and anti inflammatory agents in berries will benefit your body regardless of resveratrol levels.
The latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should begin drinking alcohol or drink more often on the basis of potential health benefits. The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), includes its longstanding dietary guidance on beverage alcohol consumption: If alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation. Any potential benefits have been shown to be small, and are not outweighed by the risks.
Risk Factors Due To Heavy Drinking
Doctors don’t recommend that you start drinking alcohol for health benefits, especially if you have a family history of alcohol addiction. Too much alcohol can have many harmful effects on your body.
Excessive drinking can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:
- Certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and liver
- Sudden death if you already have cardiovascular disease
- Heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) leading to heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Accidental serious injury or death
- Brain damage and other problems in an unborn child
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome
One study analyzing over 600,000 participants found regardless of gender, higher alcohol consumption was associated with a significantly higher rate of stroke, fatal aneurysms, heart failure, cancer and death. Overall mortality was increased with an average intake of 10 grams (or less than one drink per day) for men and less for women. The good news? Another recent study showed that those who consumed 1-3 drinks a week had the lowest risks of cancer or death compared to those drinking less than 1 drink per week.
Alcohol is an American staple but clearly decreasing as much as possible is the best thing you can do for your overall health and future well being. Please speak to your provider about how your individual health may be impacted by alcohol consumption. If you, or somebody you know, is struggling with alcohol abuse, you can find help using SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) website, found here, or you can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).