Alcohol may offer some health benefits, but excess drinking can be dangerous


As alcohol consumption rises, so does the risk of several types of cancer. (ISTOCKPHOTO)
April 8, 2013

Is drinking alcohol good for you or bad for you? The answer has always been somewhere in between. But there’s new research on how often you should raise a glass in the name of good health, plus information on what the best choices are for filling that glass.

Here are five things you should know about drinking.

Men and women process alcohol differently. The American Heart Association, the Department of Health and Human Services and other groups are very specific about the definition of “moderate” alcohol consumption: no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

Why do men get a whole extra beverage?

“There’s a difference in total body water between men and women,” says Gary Murray, program director for the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Men have more body water, and that results in a slightly lower blood alcohol concentration level, since the alcohol is distributed throughout the ‘water space.’ ” So even a larger woman should take care to keep consumption at a drink a day.

Overdoing it sometimes is as bad as overdoing it all the time. Say you abstain during the week but tend to overindulge on the weekends. If you think that pattern is less harmful to your health than drinking heavily all the time, think again.

“Saving your drinks and consuming them all on a Saturday night is the riskiest pattern of consumption for both bad behavior and physical damage of some sort,” says Sharon C. Wilsnack, a professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Among other risks, heavy drinking reverses the heart benefits associated with moderate levels of alcohol consumption.

Like habitual heavy drinkers, people who binge — that is, men who have five or more drinks in two hours and women who have four or more — have higher rates of high blood pressure and are more likely to have a stroke, even if they don’t have coronary disease. Research has found that people who binge are about 56 percent more likely to have a stroke over 10 years than those who drink alcohol moderately or not at all.

Drinking increases the risk of developing cancer. As alcohol consumption goes up, so does the risk of cancer of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver and breast, according to the National Cancer Institute. And in a review of studies on alcohol and cancer risk published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer in 2011, Italian researchers found that heavy drinking — four or more drinks a day — was associated with a fivefold increase in the risk of head and neck cancers, as well as a higher risk of breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancer. Lower levels of drinking were linked to a moderate rise in several cancers.

Quitting alcohol, on the other hand, appears to bring cancer risk back down, at least for certain cancers. Canadian researchers analyzed studies from 1966 through 2006 and found that as people abstained from drinking, their risk for developing cancer plunged. After 20 years of abstinence, former drinkers had the same risk for head and neck cancers as people who never drank.

Some drinks offer more benefit than others. Red wine, for example, may be especially helpful in protecting against cardiovascular disease. That benefit appears to be independent of the wine’s alcohol content, according to a recent small study from Spain. Sixty-seven men ages 55 to 75 who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease were assigned to one of three daily beverages for four weeks: an ounce of gin, 10 ounces of red wine or 10 ounces of a nonalcoholic red wine. The gin drinkers saw no change in blood pressure, while those in the red-wine group had a slight but statistically insignificant drop. But the men who drank nonalcoholic red wine saw a significant decrease. The study, published in the journal Circulation Research, concluded that the effect of red wine on blood pressure was probably due to its concentration of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant in grape skins.

While all alcoholic drinks have calories, you can minimize the damage by lightening up your favorite beverages. Make that bottle of beer a “light” one, and instead of a glass of wine, make a wine spritzer by adding club soda.

Some medication doesn’t mix well with alcohol. That includes not just drugs you might expect to be risky when taken with alcohol, such as over-the-counter cough and cold medication that causes drowsiness or pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and its generic cousins), but also prescription medication used to treat heart or blood-vessel disease, digestive problems, diabetes, anxiety or depression. If you take medication for any of those conditions, ask your doctor about restrictions on alcohol.

Copyright 2012. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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