Skip to main content

Is any amount of alcohol good? Resolving the conflict

Sometimes it happens that opposing views on a controversial subject juxtapose. Such is the case this week, with a new large study published on the role of alcohol and health, another outlining the reasons for it, and an opinion piece questioning whether any amount at all is beneficial. In brief, the argument goes something like this: Anti-tobacco activists point out that any amount of tobacco is harmful, and since alcohol in excess has many hazards it must be bad in small doses too, if less so. On the other hand, if moderate wine consumption is a good thing for health, as I affirm in my book Age Gets Better with Wine, then we must account for a positive role of alcohol in the health equation.


The case against alcohol is made by one Professor David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College in London. Professor Nutt outlines his reasons why he belives that it is a myth that small amounts of alcohol are not harmful: First, alcohol is a toxin, and amounts only 4 times as high as those required to reach legally defined intoxication levels can be fatal. True enough, but there is a long list of things that if consumed in 4 times a sensible amount would also be very bad news; for example, a radio station recently held a water drinking challenge that resulted in a fatality from drinking too much water! The professor then mentions that while most people are not likely to become abusers of alcohol, some do, and so that apparently is reason enough why the rest of us should abstain. The professor’s final argument is that the evidence for alcohol’s benefits is weak, which brings us to the just-released studies both in the British Medical Journal.

These two papers are particularly helpful because they are based on a review of all published studies on the question of alcohol and health, a major challenge. The focus of these reports was purely on heart disease, and the conclusion was “Light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of multiple cardiovascular outcomes.” The reasons for this are also well-defined, relating to improved levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind), as well as apolipoprotein A1, adiponectin, and lowered levels of fibrinogen, all good things for cardiovascular risk. One questions whether professor Nutt actually read any of the literature on the subject before dismissing it.

Anti-alcohol activists are quick to point out the hazards of alcohol consumption, which are also well-known and itemized by the professor. The assumption is that these hazards would disappear if alcohol were to be banned or somehow eliminated. The opposite is more likely to be the case, as deaths from cardiovascular diseases would outnumber the decrease in alcohol abuse-related deaths by a substantial multiple. With hundreds of studies out now, questioning the health benefits of moderate drinking is just nutty.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Wear red and DRINK red for women’s heart health

This Friday Feb 2nd is the annual “wear red” day in Canada and the U.S. to raise awareness for women’s heart health. Why only a day for the number one threat to women’s health? Women are 5 times more likely to succumb to heart disease than breast cancer, which gets a whole month (October.) Another contradiction is that the advice women hear about prevention of breast cancer is the opposite of what you can do to lower the risk of heart disease: a daily glass of wine. Even one drink a day raises your risk of breast cancer, we are told, ignoring the overriding benefits of wine on heart health. Drink red wine to live longer Here’s why I think women should also “drink red.” For starters, wine helps de-stress and celebrates life. Stress is a factor in heart disease, and if that were the only way wine helped it would be worth considering. But the medical evidence is also strong: a daily glass of red wine helps raise the HDL “good cholesterol” levels, which lowers the risk of cardiovascular p…

Which types of wine are the healthiest?

I am often asked after lecturing on the healthful properties of wine which type is best to drink. Since much of the discussion has to do with the polyphenol antioxidants from the skins and seeds of the grape, red wine is the first criterion since it is fermented with the whole grape rather than the pressed juice. This allows for extraction and concentration of these compounds, familiar ones being resveratrol and tannins. But beyond that, which varietals have the highest concentrations?


According to the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, “The best kind of wine is that which is pleasant to him that drinks it” but modern science expects more specifics. (The point of course is that if you have a wine that you enjoy you are more likely to drink regularly and therefore reap the benefits.) But there are several difficulties in singling out certain wines for their healthful properties. Which compounds to measure? Are we talking about heart health or the whole gamut? Is it the varietal of the …

The J-curve is dead. Long live the J-curve!

There is a resurgence of debate about the validity of the J-curve, especially as it relates to alcohol and cancer. A 2014 report determined that “alcohol use was positively associated with overall mortality, alcohol-related cancers, and violent death and injuries, but marginally to CVD/CHD” (cardiovascular disease). In other words, there was little benefit if any in terms of heart disease but a big upside risk for cancer and accidental or violent demise. Gone was the French Paradox! The J curve is dead! Or not. Though that statement may be technically true, I looked at look at the data myself and found something different: a strong confirmation of the J-curve for overall mortality, overall cancer deaths, cardiovascular disease, and all “other causes.” This held for both men and women:
    Used under creative commons license from Ferrari P, Licaj I,Muller DC, et al. Lifetime alcohol use and overall and cause-specific mortality in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and nu…