ABSTINENCE MAY make the heart grow fonder. But in general, total abstinence from alcohol doesn't necessarily help the heart at all. In light of recent research, you may want to indulge occasionally in your favorite alcoholic beverage.All in the name of therapy, of course.

While modern-day Carrie Nations might find it sobering, studies prove that a little recreational drinking might actually benefit your health. From controlled research in an Oakland hospital to social hours in Boston homes for the aged, the research shows that booze might do more than give you a buzz.

Cocktail hour proved beneficial for some of Boston's aged and rehabilitating hospital patients. With a daily dose of beer, cheese and crackers, many invalids became ambulatory and all those taking Thorazine (a major tranquilizer) discontinued using it. Similar reductions in other prescription medicine followed. In addition, staff on the ward relinquished their own lunch breaks so they could spend cocktail hour socializing with patients.

Further episodes substantiate this experience. One doctor on a rehabilitation ward reports that his patients, dealing with chronic illness (such as recovering from strokes), became much less antisocial when the hospital established a cocktail hour for them.

Even after two martinis, a luncher can figure out that drinking -- anything -- to excess isn't great for your body. But several well-documented studies on tens of thousands of patients hint that a couple of drinks a day might help deter heart attacks. In those studies, moderate drinkers (two ounces of pure alcohol a day, the equivalent of two drinks with hard liquor or a couple of beers) showed less chance of dying from heart attacks than nondrinkers, ex-drinkers or heavy drinkers.

If you've begun to pop the corks, wait a moment. Drinking has been associated with increased chance of breast cancer in women, reports the British medical journal Lancet. Blood pressure increases with corresponding increases in liquor consumption when you tipple more than three drinks a day. The controversy over drinking while pregnant continues unabated -- heavy drinking is associated with "fetal alcohol syndrome," otherwise known as birth defects. This leads many, including the March of Dimes, to recommend that pregnant mothers consume no alcohol whatsoever.

Don't forget that every gram of alcohol contains seven calories -- more than carbohydrates and protein, but fewer than fat. Alcohol can fit into a weight-loss program, but the dieter should drink with care and be sure to consume proper nutrients. Liquor, with few exceptions, provides nothing but empty calories.

In addition alcohol reacts not only with such drugs as tranquilizers, but can interfere with the metabolism of antidepressant drugs, coagulants and anti-hypertensive drugs. Alcohol can combine with aspirin to cause severe heartburn and can even increase drowsiness when taken with common over-the-counter type antihistimines.

While everyone knows that alcohol consumption slows reaction time, thus making drunk drivers a real menace, many don't know that it also lengthens "glare recovery time." That's why those oncoming car lights seem so bothersome.

"The substance goes everywhere in your body, says Dr. Ralph Ryback, medical officer at the laboratory of clinical studies, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol itself has a harmful effect on the cell. It has to be 'detoxified' in the body. One wouldn't recommend it if you were on a health kick."

Then there's alcoholism. And alcohol abuse. While alcoholism often is considered a disease, alcohol abuse involves the mishandling of a drug, says Dr. Morris Chafetz, former director of the NIAAA. A proponent of drinking in moderation, he says the American society condones and even encourages alcohol abuse, by laughing at drunks, for instance. "Getting drunk means you've overdosed with a drug," he says. "What's funny about that?"

"Americans don't realize that there are dose-related differences" in drugs, he continues. Just because two or three daily drinks may improve cardiovascular fitness, doesn't mean 10 will help you live forever.

Social drinkers interested in maintaining some degree of sobriety should know that the average body metabolizes about one ounce of 80 proof whisky per hour (about 3 1/2 ounces of table wine). Chafetz advises having protein in the stomach (the old peanut butter sandwich routine) before drinking.

The alcohol in more diluted drinks -- beer, wine and spirits mixed with something softer -- is absorbed slower than the same quantity of alcohol in martinis or scotch on the rocks.

And . . . for those of you who are always complaining about how "beer always goes straight through" you, here's a little tippling trivia. Ethyl alcohol -- the kind that gives you a buzz -- effectively inhibits the anti-diuretic hormone from the pituitary gland. That means, when the level of alcohol is increasing in your blood, your brain doesn't know that your bladder doesn't want to be full again.

So, while you continue to drink, and while alcohol in your system continues to rise, you will continue to feel the need to void, as the doctors euphemistically phrase it.

Toss that out during your next cocktail party conversation.