Limiting alcohol to half a unit per day is best for health, say Oxford University researchers who analyzed the link between alcohol consumption and 11 chronic diseases and concluded 4,600 more lives would be saved every year if people in England were to cut the amount they drink to within this level.

They write about their findings in a BMJ Open paper that was published online on 30 May.

The lead author of the study was Dr Melanie Nichols of the BHF Health Promotion Research Group, in the Department of Public Health, at Oxford University. She told the press:

“People who justify their drinking with the idea that it is good for heart disease should also consider how alcohol is increasing their risk of other chronic diseases. A couple of pints or a couple of glasses of wine per day is not a healthy option.”

One unit is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. The UK government currently recommends people should not regularly drink more than 3 to 4 units (about 1.5 pints of 4% beer) a day for men, and 2 to 3 units (a 175ml glass of wine) a day for women.

Changing the government recommended limit to half a unit a day would mean drinking no more than a quarter of a glass of wine or a quarter of a pint of beer a day.

Several studies have examined the effect of alcohol intake on heart disease and other diseases like liver disease and cancers, but these have only studied the links individually.

For their study, Nichols and colleagues set out to find the optimum daily intake of alcohol that would result in the fewest number of deaths in England from a range of diseases known to have links to alcohol.

From the 2006 General Household Survey they could work out the alcohol consumption levels among adults in England, and from a wealth of available published research, they had data on the effect of different levels of alcohol intake on the risk of developing various diseases. They got mortality data for 2006 from the Office for National Statistics.

They then developed a mathematical model to calculate the effect that changing alcohol consumption might have on deaths from 11 diseases and conditions linked to alcohol intake.

The 11 diseases included: five cancers, coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy, and diabetes. In 2006, they caused over 170,000 deaths in England.

Nichols explained what they found:

“Although there is good evidence that moderate alcohol consumption protects against heart disease, when all of the chronic disease risks are balanced against each other, the optimal consumption level is much lower than many people believe.”

The results showed that just over half a unit of alcohol a day was the optimum level whereby limiting drinking to within this level would prevent around 4,579 premature deaths, or around 3% of all deaths from the 11 conditions.

Deaths from heart disease would go up by 843, but there would be 2,600 fewer deaths from cancer and nearly 3,000 fewer deaths from liver cirrhosis.

Although the study did not look at patterns of alcohol consumption, Nichols said that regardless of average intake, the best possible health comes from avoiding heavy drinking sessions or “binge drinking”. She said there was very clear evidence that binge drinking increases people’s risk of many diseases, as well as the risk of injuries.

“Moderating your alcohol consumption overall, and avoiding heavy-drinking episodes, is one of several things, alongside a healthy diet and regular physical activity, that you can do to reduce your risk of dying early of chronic diseases,” said Nichols.

She added: ‘We are not telling people what to do, we are just giving them the best balanced information about the different health effects of alcohol consumption, so that they can make an informed decision about how much to drink.”

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD