How much alcohol can you safely drink? The jury’s still out, but a recent study has some new insight.
It’s hard to decode the news about booze these days. There are some things we know – regular drinking can increase your risk of stroke, liver disease, and several types of cancer, and it can impair your immune system. According to the World Health Organization, “3.3 million deaths in 2012 were due to harmful use of alcohol.” But what about research suggesting that a moderate amount of alcohol can stave off dementia, or decrease your risk of heart disease?
The World Health Organization classifies the “ethanol in alcoholic beverages” as a group one carcinogen, the same class as arsenic, plutonium and all forms of asbestos. The problem is the acetaldehyde produced when our body breaks down alcohol. Acetaldehyde damages DNA and impairs a cell’s ability to repair the damage, which can lead to cancer. Overconsumption can also lead to a build-up of fatty acids in the liver, which in turn can lead to liver disease.
But how much is “overconsumption?” Weekly guidelines, and even what constitutes a “standard” drink or unit of alcohol, vary around the world. According to New Scientist, the size of a standard drink is fairly similar in the US (14 grams of pure alcohol) and Canada (13.6 grams). In the UK, however, a standard drink has only 8 grams of alcohol, while in Austria it is 20 grams! And the recommended weekly guidelines vary as well. In the US, it’s 5.3 drinks for women and double that for men. In Canada, it’s 7.4 for women and 11.1 for men. In the UK, it’s six drinks for both men and women, while in Austria it’s six for women and 9.1 for men.
This lack of agreement highlights the difficulty in nailing down a “safe” amount to drink, if there is such a thing. And the research isn’t helping.
Again, according to New Scientist, “There are now more than 100 studies that show a link between having just one or two drinks a day and a decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death.”
However, in a study just reported by Science Daily, researchers found no association between light to moderate alcohol consumption and coronary artery disease, saying that “while no protective effect was detected among light drinkers, as previously thought, no harmful effects were detected either.” And there is the confounding problem that people who drink in moderation may have a healthier lifestyle in general—eating well, maintaining their weight, exercising, and getting adequate sleep—all things that support heart health. Teasing out any beneficial effects of moderate alcohol intake is hard.
So what to do in this season of holiday parties and family gatherings? It might not be what you want to hear, but the takeaway message seems to be that like most things in life, moderation is the key. Try to exercise, eat well, and avoid binge drinking. If nothing else, you’ll feel better in the morning.