Drinking alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of many health issues. Heavy drinking can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, type 2 diabetes, stroke, memory problems, heart attack, alcohol dependence, and more. It’s recently been shared that moderate drinking carries risk, despite plenty of news coverage that falling into this range may even be beneficial to our health. Now, it’s being shown that even low levels of drinking can negatively impact blood pressure.
Any alcohol intake shown to impact blood pressure
A meta-analysis of internal studies published in Hypertension shared data that as little as one alcoholic drink per day is associated with a linear increase in systolic BP, even for people without hypertension.
“We found no beneficial effects in adults who drank a low level of alcohol compared to those who did not drink alcohol,” Marco Vinceti, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology and public health at University of Modena Medical School and Reggio Emilia University in Italy, said in a press release. “We were somewhat surprised to see that consuming an already-low level of alcohol was also linked to higher BP changes over time compared to no consumption — although far less than the BP increase seen in heavy drinkers.”
Researchers found that there was a substantially linear positive association between baseline alcohol intake and changes over time in systolic and diastolic BP. “Alcohol is certainly not the sole driver of increases in BP; however, our findings confirm it contributes in a meaningful way,” Vinceti said in the release. “Limiting alcohol intake is advised and avoiding it is even better.”
What exactly equates “a drink”?
Part of the issue with trying to determine drinking habits is that people inaccurately self-evaluate. A glass of wine might literally be the entire glass of wine. A single cocktail may truly be the equivalent of two. By the end of the week, we may think we’ve consumed within the range of moderate-to-low risk, but the reality is it may be double that amount.
The image below shows the alcoholic equivalent of a “standard drink”.
But News Stories Say Moderate to Light Drinking is Okay. . .
We get it. There is so much information available, and a lot of it is contradictory. For years, we’ve heard that moderate to light drinking is safe, even beneficial to our health. However, the most recent data shows that information is incorrect.
Many older studies that concluded light or moderate drinking could actually be beneficial to our health were largely observational; other study-related flaws have resulted in a wide range of information asserting that moderate drinking was low-risk, even beneficial. Observational studies can show associations, but results don’t definitively point towards causation.
In fact, when it comes to previous studies, many of them ignore that other lifestyle habits of people that are light or moderate drinkers (no more than 2 drinks/day for men and no more than 1 drink/day for women) are more likely the reason behind results showing a decrease in health risks. One source shared that moderate drinkers tend to be “moderate in all ways”. Examples include having habits like regularly exercising, consuming a higher quality diet, earning a higher income, and even having better dental health- all factors that heavily influence health outcomes, and are not associated with alcohol habits.
A new review, published in Jama Network Open, April 2023, evaluated over 100 studies of nearly 5 million adults that had consistently found moderate drinking was tied to decrease risk of all-cause mortality. The researchers involved in the review adjusted for study flaws and biases in previous studies. In doing so, “the appearance of the benefit from moderate drinking greatly diminishes and, in some cases, vanishes altogether,” said study co-author Tim Stockwell.
One large issue with previous studies is that former drinkers-turned-abstainers were often lumped in with non-drinkers, despite often already having developed health issues related to their previous drinking habits. The new analysis found that former drinkers actually have a 22% higher risk of death compared to abstainers. Their presence in the “non-drinker” group biases the results, creating the illusion that light daily drinking is healthy, Stockwell said.
Another recent study had similar results, showing that moderate drinking does not account for decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. In the cohort study, favorable lifestyle factors were also found to diminish the supposed (and observational) benefits of modest alcohol consumption. The study had nearly 38,000 participants from the U.K. Biobank (2006-2010, follow-up until 2016), which is a large-scale biomedical database. The data showed that the risk of cardiovascular disease linked to light alcohol consumption was modest but rose exponentially with higher intake, even at intake levels currently endorsed as “low risk.”
Many people share that what they enjoy the most about that evening glass of wine or cocktail after work is the ritual that surrounds it. It signifies the end of a long, stressful day and is the start of a different phase. Move towards establishing those same feelings of relaxation and substitute other activities in place of drinking. Yoga. Reading. A bath. Aromatherapy. Cook a delicious meal. Take a walk with a friend. Really love the idea of a tasty drink? Try a non alcoholic beverage; check out this list of 17 non-alcoholic spirits that showcase complex flavors without any of the downside.
The long and short of it is this: the less alcohol we consume, the better off our body will be. That doesn’t have to mean completely cutting it out of your life if you enjoy an occasional drink. But reducing the amount you consume will help better support your overall health and reduce the risk of the many health issues tied to alcohol.