Is moderate drinking good or bad for you?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines moderate drinking as up to four alcoholic drinks for men and three for women in any single day and a maximum of 14 drinks for men and seven drinks for women per week.
In 2015, 26.9 percent of people in the United States reported binge drinking in the past month.
Women versus men
Moderate drinking may have some health benefits, but more research is needed to confirm this.
Studies have shown that females begin having alcohol-related problems at lower levels of alcohol consumption than males.
There are four main reasons:
Females have less water in their bodies than males, pound-for-pound. Alcohol disperses in body water.
Women generally weigh less than men. The threshold for safe alcohol consumption is closely linked to body weight. Women have less tissue with which to absorb alcohol.
Women usually have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (AHD) than men. AHD is a chemical that breaks down alcohol in the liver. Consequently, alcohol remains in a woman's system longer and builds up faster.
Hormonal factors may also play a role in making women more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. Studies have found that with the same amount of drink, blood alcohol concentrations are at their highest just before menstruation and at their lowest on the first day after menstruation.
However, these studies were very limited, and no confirmed conclusion has been reached on the link between menstruation and alcohol absorption.
According to the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education at the University of Notre Dame, IN, a woman's body absorbs 30 percent more alcohol than a man's after drinking the same amount.
When trying to moderate alcohol intake over the course of an evening or a week, it helps to know how much alcohol is in each drink you consume.
The NIAAA defines one drink as:
- 12 fluid ounces (fl oz) of regular beer at around 5 percent alcohol
- Between 8 and 9 fl oz of malt liquor at around 7 percent alcohol
- 5 fl oz of table wine at around 12 percent alcohol
- 1.5 fl oz of distilled spirits, such as gin, rum, whiskey, tequila, or vodka
One standard drink in the U.S. contains around 14 grams of pure alcohol.
There are many studies that discuss the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.
However, many of the messages are mixed. While some studies advise that alcohol in moderation can have some heart benefits, others explain the associated higher risk of heart damage, cancer, mental health problems, and liver disease.
When studies show the harm associated with consuming alcohol, they nearly always refer to binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or alcoholism.
The potential benefits of regular, moderate alcohol consumption include:
Stroke: A study published in the journal Stroke found that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption may lower the risk of stroke in women. The study included self-reported data about the drinking habits of 83,578 female participants of the Nurses' Health Study.
Another study found that one component in red wine may protect the brain from stroke damage.
Depression: In a study of 2,683 men and 2,822 women aged between 55 and 80 years, Spanish researchers found that regular, moderate wine drinking might reduce the risk of developing depression, while heavy drinking increases the risk.
The investigators reported in the journal BMC Medicine that people who drank from 2 to 7 glasses of wine per week were much less likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression.
The participants mostly followed a Mediterranean diet and drank wine in a social context, with family and friends.
Cardiovascular health: Several studies have shown that moderate, regular alcohol intake may benefit cardiovascular health.
An Italian review of studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that moderate wine and beer consumption reduced the risk of cardiovascular events, but spirits did not.
Investigators at University College in London reported in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health that moderate drinkers who followed a healthful lifestyle were more likely to see a protective effect on the heart, compared with moderate drinkers who smoked or had a poor diet.
Consuming moderate amounts of certain types of alcohol, such as wine, has shown some benefits. However, it is important to note that many studies making these claims are inconclusive.
When it comes to drinking alcohol and expecting a health benefit, moderation is the key. If you currently drink no alcohol at all, do not start because of the health benefits.
While consuming alcohol in moderation appears to have some benefits, it is important to remember that too much can be devastating for overall health and even life-threatening in the long run.
Consuming too much alcohol can lead to:
One study linked moderate drinking with a lower risk of depression, but others have positively associated the two.
- mental health problems
- alcoholic hepatitis
- fatty liver
- high blood pressure
- nerve damage
- chronic disease of the heart muscle, known as cardiomyopathy
- some types of cancer
Alcohol consumption has been linked to cancers of the breast, colon and rectum, liver, esophagus, voice box, throat, mouth, and probably the pancreas, according to the American Cancer Society.
During pregnancy, it increases the risk of pregnancy loss and of a child having growth and developmental problems in future.
If you are becoming worried about the amount of alcohol you consume, you can ask your doctor about it.
In this video, Dr. Bobby Lazzara explains the potential benefits of alcohol for your heart and emphasizes the importance of moderation.
He also explains that the potential benefits are poorly studied and that the possible long-term benefits are outweighed by the more immediate health problems caused by binge drinking.