Initially, I wanted to write this post about beer as it is one of the most common alcoholic drinks that has been touted as healthy for millennia. Modern science tends to agree with that perception, but studies have also found that the health effects of beer are very similar to those of alcohol in general. Therefore, this post will be about the health benefits and caveats of all alcohol.
For those who do not have time to read the full post, this is the conclusion: moderate drinkers tend to be healthier and live longer than those who either abstain or drink heavily; while heavy drinkers lose all of the potential benefits of drinking alcohol and are at increased risks of developing most known lethal diseases, including cancer, liver and hearth diseases. The details are as follows.
Unless otherwise indicated, all of the benefits of alcohol listed below are found only in cases of moderate drinking, therefore the word “moderate” will be omitted for the sake of economy of space.
Moderate drinking is defined as consuming one or two standard drinks per day for men and one standard drink for women. Note that despite of the two-drink recommendation, a number of studies cited below found that the second daily drink adds more health risks than benefits, so it may be more sensible to stick to only one drink per day.
One standard drink is equal to 0.6 oz (14 g) of pure alcohol, which can generally be found in 12 ounces (350 ml) of beer, 5 ounces (145 ml) of wine, or 1.5 ounces (44 ml) of a distilled beverage like gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey.
General Health and Longevity
Alcohol consumption significantly reduces the risk of mortality according to a meta-analysis of 34 studies of alcohol and and its effects on total mortality among more than one million people around the globe. A good example of such research would be a Harvard study that found that men who drank had the risk of death from all causes 21% to 28% lower than abstainers. Similar findings were reported based on the longitudinal Harvard’s Nurses’ Health Study covering over 85,000 women.
Drinking is definitely fun, but studies have also shown that the quality of life of drinkers seems to be better. Drinkers experience significantly less acute hospitalizations and have less disability than abstainers.
In another study, abstainers were found to be less healthy than drinkers, which extends to both their physical and mental health. Plus, alcohol slows down the health deterioration that occurs with aging.
Sixteen ounces of beer a day can improve cardiovascular health by helping major blood vessels around the heart, a study at Harokopio University in Athens suggests. Arteries become more flexible and blood flow improves within a couple of hours after drinking beer. Non-alcoholic beer did not have the same effect, although vodka did (not as good as beer).
Another study published in the Journal of American Heart Association found that consuming one to six beer drinks (12 to 72 oz) per week is associated with a 20% lower risk of ischemic stroke, when compared to abstainers, among people older than 65. Drinking more alcohol than that leads to higher risk. Please note the “per week” remark, not “per day”! The only exemption were people found to have ApoE4 gene (according to different sources present in 14% to 30% of population; those with this gene are extremely prone to Alzheimer’s disease): for them any alcohol intake was linked to a higher risk of ischemic stroke.
These findings are pretty much in line with numerous previous studies showing that having the same amount of beer per day reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes by up to 30%. Moreover, even when drinkers have heart attacks or acute myocardial infarction, their chances to survive are significantly higher than those of abstainers.
Exercise does not preclude drinking and visa-versa. A 20-year study conducted by Danish researchers found that people both drinking and exercising were enjoying best health conditions as compared to both sedentary drinkers and physically active abstainers.
Unlike cardiovascular health, cancer has a bit more complicated relationship with alcohol and with beer in particular. Multiple studies have found a direct link between beer consumption and colorectal cancer, but the modern consensus is that this link was due to two factors: having more than one drink per day and the presence of carcinogenic compounds (volatile nitrosamines) in beers in the 1970s. Modern technology has reduced those carcinogenic compounds to a safe level, and recent studies have proven that beer consumption (no more than one drink a day) is not associated with an increased risks of the colorectal cancer. No link has been found between moderate beer drinking and breast cancer, either.
Alcohol consumption decreases the risk of prostate cancer (by 32%) as well as lymphomas, kidney, pancreatic and thyroid cancers.
Among the other health benefits of alcohol are reduced risks of:
– diabetes (by 30%),
– arthritic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, reactive arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis,
– benign prostatic hyperplasia (by 35% when compared abstinence),
Beer belly (excessive abdominal fat around the stomach and abdomen) is not a myth, especially if you are a man over the age of 40. However, the causes of a beer belly are often misunderstood. Beer, even in moderate amounts, increases your waist size by:
– relaxing your self-control making you more prone to overeating,
– often being accompanied by snacks which could contain a great deal of calories.
Other than that, beer is not to be blamed for your beer belly. The can of Coca Cola has about the same number of calories as your average beer can, but unlike beer having multiple nutritious ingredients, Coca Cola effectively contains none. Control over your calorie intake and plenty of physical activity are the best prescriptions to combat beer belly.
Moderation is Key
As was mentioned earlier, all of the listed benefits of alcohol are associated with its moderate consumption. Excessive drinking not only annihilates those benefits, it greatly increases the risks of virtually all of the listed diseases. Most studies mention the “U” shape of the trade-off between alcohol consumption and the risks of particular disease, and those risks literally skyrocket with each additional drink per day after the first or second one. Add alcoholism and injuries, and you can see why it makes a lot of sense to stick to just one recommended drink per day.
Have a nice drink!