Understanding the risks and any potential health benefits of alcohol often seems confusing; that’s understandable, because the evidence for moderate alcohol consumption in healthy adults is not certain.
Researchers know surprisingly little about the risks or benefits of moderate alcohol consumption in healthy adults. Almost all lifestyle studies, including diet, exercise, caffeine, and alcohol, are based on patient recall and truthful reporting of one’s habits over many years.
These studies may indicate that two things may be associated with each other, but not necessarily that one causes the other. Healthy adults may participate in more social activities and enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol, but alcohol has nothing to do with making them healthier.
Any potential benefit from alcohol is relatively small and may not apply to all individuals. In fact, the latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should start drinking alcohol or drink more often on the basis of potential health benefits. For many people, the potential benefits do not outweigh the risks, and avoiding alcohol is the best option. On the other hand, if you’re a light to moderate drinker and healthy, you can probably continue to drink alcohol as long as you do so responsibly.
Here we take a more detailed look at alcohol and your health
Definition of moderate
Moderate alcohol consumption in healthy adults generally means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
Some examples of a drink include:
Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
Distilled alcoholic beverages (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)
Advantages and disadvantages of moderate alcohol consumption
Moderate alcohol consumption can provide some health benefits, such as:
- Reduce the risk of developing heart disease and dying from it
- Possibly reduce the risk of ischemic stroke (when arteries to the brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)
- Possibly reduce the risk of diabetes
(However, eating a healthy diet and being physically active have many more health benefits and are measures that have been studied more extensively).
Keep in mind that even moderate alcohol consumption is not without risk. For example, even light drinkers (those who have no more than one drink a day) have a tiny but real increased risk of some types of cancer, such as esophageal cancer. And drinking and driving is never a good idea.
Risks of excessive alcohol consumption
Although moderate alcohol consumption may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking (including binge drinking) has no health benefits.
Heavy or high-risk drinking is defined as more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week for women and men 65 and older, and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week for men age 65 and younger. Binge drinking refers to four or more drinks within a two-hour period for women and five or more drinks within a two-hour period for men.
Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:
- Certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver
- Sudden death if you already have cardiovascular disease
- Damage to the heart muscle (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) leading to heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Serious injury or accidental death
- Brain damage and other problems in a fetus
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome
When to avoid alcohol
In certain situations, the risks of alcohol may outweigh the potential health benefits. For example, ask your doctor about drinking if:
- You are pregnant or trying to get pregnant
- You have been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol addiction, or have a strong family history of alcoholism
- Had a hemorrhagic stroke (when a blood vessel in the brain leaks or breaks)
- You have liver or pancreatic disease
- You have heart failure or have been told you have a weak heart
- You take prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol
Deciding on drinking
If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start with the potential health benefits. However, if you drink light to moderate amounts and are healthy, you can probably continue as long as you drink responsibly. Be sure to consult your doctor about what is right for your health and safety.