Alcohol and Health
Are you confused about how much alcohol to drink? Should you drink only red wine? Is it a good idea to have a cocktail in the evening? What is “resveratrol” in red wine?
These are some of the questions that I am asked daily. This month I thought would be a good time to address the alcohol issue head-on. To drink or not to drink, that is the question!
We have all heard the news, moderate drinking is good for our hearts. Before you get too excited, let me be clear what “moderate” means. Moderate is defined as one drink for a woman or two drinks for a man; the “drink” can be one and a half ounces of spirits or five ounces of wine. Alcohol benefits the heart by helping the coronary arteries to open up, raising HDL (good) cholesterol slightly and by making platelets less sticky, allowing blood to flow more freely.
Resveratrol is a recently discovered substance found in the skin of red grapes, blueberries, and red skin peanuts. Like many components of plants, resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant but its special benefit comes from its ability to promote the longevity gene, SIR1. Clinical studies of laboratory animals given resveratrol have shown an extended lifespan. Resveratrol forms as a reaction to the UV light hitting the grape. The riper the grape, the more resveratrol will be formed. Resveratrol is formed in the skin primarily; little is present within the flesh. Red wine, but not white wine, is fermented with the skins, allowing the wine to absorb resveratol. While red wine and grapes are sources of resveratrol, blueberries, cranberries and plums are equally good sources.
The science supporting the heart health benefits of drinking is strong – hundreds of studies consistently confirm the protective effect of alcohol. People who drink moderately have a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular diseases. The risk reduction is 20-40% and applies to both men and women.
Now here’s the bad news. Alcohol raises blood pressure in a dose dependent fashion. In fact, alcohol consumption can be an overlooked cause in the diagnosis of hypertension. If you have recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure, did your doctor ask about alcohol? Because alcohol is metabolized in the liver, drinking too much can harm the liver. Many common medicines magnify the strain that alcohol puts on the liver. Arthritis medicines (Naproxen, Celebrex, Advil, Aleve), all cholesterol medicines (Lipitor, Zocor, Mevacor, Crestor, Niaspan, Vytorin), diabetes medicines (Glucophage, Micornase, Orinase), seizure medications (Dilantin, Klonapin, and others), and pain medications (Vicodin, Demerol, Percocet) – all interact with alcohol.
As we age our metabolism of alcohol becomes less efficient. Perhaps you have noticed that you “hold your liquor” less well now. Because medications also alter alcohol metabolism, so be sure to ask your doctor about this when getting a new prescription.
A recent study of over one million women examined whether alcohol could offer protection against cancers. The UK-based Million Women Study tracked cancer incidence and alcohol use in over 1,300,000 women in the United Kingdom. Before the study began the researchers had hoped to document a protective effect. But the opposite occurred. Researchers found drinking alcohol increased the risk for developing cancer. Even women who drank little or moderate amounts of alcohol slightly increased their risk for cancers. (I am quite surprised that this large study did not receive the publicity that it deserved.) Women who drank increased their risks for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, larynx, rectum, liver, and breast. And the risk for these cancers increased with the number of drinks consumed, regardless of the type of alcohol. Those who have had cancer, or have a family history of cancer, need to be aware of the cancer promoting effect of alcohol.
What is heavy drinking?
Heavy drinking for a man is classified as more than 4 drinks on any one day or more than 14 drinks in a week. Females who drink more than 3 drinks on any one day or more than 7 drinks per week are drinking heavily. The reason females have a lower number is because their body volumes are smaller and their livers are smaller. Heavy drinking increases the risks for liver disease, heart disease, sleep disorders, and many types of cancer. Like many things in life, what may have started out as a pleasant, occasional indulgence can escalate into abuse. If your drinking is regularly within the heavy classification, chances are you have a habit that will harm your health.
What’s the bottom line?
There are times when we are more susceptible for alcohol becoming a problem. During periods of stress, it may seem like a good idea to use alcohol to relax. But alcohol is a depressant and relying on it can worsen emotional stress. There are far better ways to deal with stress.
My advice is similar to what other experts advise. If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do drink, count your drinks. Remember the rule: 2 drinks for a male and 1 drink for a woman. If you are a cancer survivor, avoid alcohol.
I think it is a good idea to assess our behavior from time to time. To reach our full potential we need to edit, eliminating that which does not benefit us. While drinking a glass of wine with your lover as the sun sets on the Amalfi coast is magical, drinking too much at a cocktail party or dinner is not. The decisions we make have a profound impact on our physical and emotional well being.