You’ve likely heard reports that moderate alcohol consumption can provide some health benefits. Numerous studies support the idea that alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle, and drinking wine in moderation is one of the “Power 9” habits shared by people who live in Blue Zones—parts of the world where people regularly live longer, healthier lives. Are there really health benefits to drinking alcohol, and how much is too much?
What Does the Research Say?
Some studies have revealed an association between light or moderate drinking and certain health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health and overall lower risk of death. One 2017 study, for example, found that men who drank moderately had a 13 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 21 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. For women, the risk of death from all causes was 25 percent lower, and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease was 34 percent lower.
Moderate alcohol consumption, which is also associated with higher levels of HDL cholesterol—the “good” cholesterol, is defined as one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink for women. Examples of one alcoholic drink include 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits such as vodka or gin.
Another study published in 2016 found that men who consumed at least one alcoholic drink per day had a 30 percent lower risk of death from all cardiovascular disease, while women had a 40 percent lower risk. However, the same study found that people who drank alcohol had a higher risk of dying from factors such as cirrhosis, injuries and accidents, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and alcohol-related cancers, including mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, and liver cancer.
In addition, no studies have conclusively established a cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol consumption and better cardiovascular health. Other factors could be at play, and people who drink in moderation may be more likely to practice other healthy habits. For example, people who live in Blue Zones also eat plant-based diets, refrain from overeating, and have lifestyles that promote regular physical activity.
Isn’t Red Wine Healthy?
Much of the research examining the health benefits of alcohol consumption has focused on red wine, which contains beneficial compounds such as antioxidants and polyphenols. The most famously touted of these is resveratrol, a compound that may help protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia. Resveratrol can also be found in red and purple grapes, blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, and pistachios. While resveratrol may have some health benefits, it’s important to still keep alcohol consumption at moderate levels.
Is It Okay to Drink Alcohol Every Day?
Although low-level alcohol use could help protect against cardiovascular disease, the idea that it’s healthy to drink one to two drinks per day could be a myth, according to a large-scale 2018 review, which found that drinking as little as one drink per day could be harmful. The study found that the lowest risk of death from all causes is linked to drinking one to two drinks, roughly three times per week.
Using data collected from 434,321 participants, researchers found that those who drank more than four times a week had a 20 percent higher risk of premature death. The increased risk was true for all age groups.
What Are the Health Risks of Too Much Alcohol?
Drinking too much alcohol is associated with numerous health risks. Over time, drinking in excess can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, and problems with learning and memory. These risks may increase if you have existing underlying health conditions.
If you choose to drink, it’s important to weigh the potential benefits against the risks. The potential benefits of drinking alcohol are relatively small, but if you drink in moderation and are otherwise healthy, the risks are likely minimal as long as you drink responsibly.
If you don’t already drink alcohol, the purported health benefits are no reason to start. A healthy diet and regular exercise are some of the best ways to protect your health as you age. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly have far greater health benefits, and have been studied more extensively.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.