Alcohol Boasts Some Benefits — but Only if You Drink It the Right Way

Although a cocktail, a beer or a glass of wine can be both relaxing and good for the heart, it might also play a role in cancer development, liver and heart damage and depression.
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If you don't normally drink alcohol, there's no good reason to start now.

In fact, health experts say there isn't a safe level of drinking alcohol, as alcohol use is the seventh leading risk factor for deaths globally, according to a landmark August 2018 study in The Lancet.

But if you like to kick back with a glass of wine or a cold beer every now and then, there are healthier and safer ways to drink — and the first step is to curb your intake.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends women limit their intake to one alcoholic drink per day and men up to two drinks. What does that look like exactly? Here's a breakdown from the CDC:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
  • 1.5 ounces or a shot of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor, such as gin, rum, vodka and whiskey

One way to approach alcohol is to think about why you want to drink. Will it help you relax and feel good? Or will it make your anxiety worse? Are you using it to cope with personal issues going on in your life?

"Pace yourself and make sure you are mindful of your motivations for drinking. If you are drinking to avoid feelings or out of boredom, it can be helpful to engage in another healthier activity or call a friend," Alana Kessler, RD, functional and holistic nutrition and wellness expert, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

How alcohol affects someone depends on the person, so if you do drink, make sure to limit yourself to one drink (for women) or two drinks (for men) per day maximum — and be mindful of how it affects you.

If you feel like you're drinking too much or are on prescription medications or being treated for any health conditions, it's important to talk to your doctor about safe alcohol use for you.

"Pace yourself and make sure you are mindful of your motivations for drinking. If you are drinking to avoid feelings or out of boredom, it can be helpful to engage in another healthier activity or call a friend."

Your liver metabolizes alcohol, but it can metabolize only a small amount at a time, so any excess alcohol continues to circulate throughout your body, per the CDC. Whether you're sipping on a martini or whiskey, the effects of alcohol will largely depend on the amount you take in and not so much on the type of alcohol you drink.

In small amounts, alcohol can uplift your mood, but as you drink more, it can impair your vision, motor skills, memory and judgment.

All that said, here are some potential ways alcohol can help enhance your health, as well as ways it can pose a danger to it. The benefits of alcohol don't outweigh the disadvantages — so, again, don't start drinking if you haven't been.

Benefits of Drinking Alcohol in Moderation

1. It's Linked to Better Heart Health

Some types of alcohol are better protectants than others — red wine, for instance, has a high concentration of polyphenols called resveratrol that are linked to helping prevent coronary heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"The flavonoids and antioxidants in wine can be beneficial for the heart and blood vessels, as well as for people with type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes can produce a lot of free radicals because of poor sugar metabolism," Kessler says.

However, these health-boosting properties have shown to be beneficial only when you drink less alcohol. For example, a February 2017 study in The Lancet Public Health found that drinking in moderation does not appear to worsen blood pressure. But for those who drink more than two drinks per day, reducing alcohol can improve blood pressure.

2. It's Linked to Helping Prevent Chronic Diseases

When coupled with a healthy, well-balanced diet like the Mediterranean Diet, for instance, low-to-moderate wine intake can help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation.

A November 2019 review in Nutrients suggests that the polyphenols in red wine can help prevent chronic diseases associated with oxidative stress.

The review also highlights how low-to-moderate wine intake is tied to helping decrease total cholesterol in people with dyslipidemia, high cholesterol in postmenopausal women, blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance in those with metabolic syndrome.

Furthermore, a small May 2012 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that red wine may provide some prebiotic benefits and might help promote gut-friendly bacteria.

3. It's Tied to Better Cognitive Function

Drinking moderately is tied to better brain health in older adults.

A June 2020 study in Neurology of 19,887 people with a mean age of about 62 years old found that low to moderate drinking (which equated to 8 drinks per week for women and less than 15 drinks per week for men) was significantly associated with consistently high cognitive function and a lower rate of cognitive decline.

And here's where it gets even more interesting: Compared to people who never drink, those who drink low to moderate amounts of alcohol were less likely to have a low total cognitive function, mental status, word recall and vocabulary.

It's worth noting that the majority of the participants in this study were women.

4. Beer, Specifically, Might Help Your Gut

In terms of other alcohol, research shows that beer may also have some health benefits.

For instance, a November 2019 review in Metabolites suggests that as a fermented drink, beer contains polyphenols, such as ferulic acid, xanthohumol, catechins, epicatechins and proanthocyanidins, that may help support the gut microbiome.

However, more research is needed to understand the role of the polyphenols in beer and how they interact with the gut.

Different types of alcohol come with a different set of potential benefits, but you'll still want to limit yourself to no more than one (for women) or two drinks (for men) per day.
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The Drawbacks of Drinking Too Much Alcohol

1. It Can Cause Organ Damage

The drawbacks of alcohol appear when you turn moderate drinking to heavy or binge drinking.

"Heavy alcohol consumption can tax the liver since the liver is the organ that filters alcohol. If the liver has to filter alcohol, it can produce metabolites that are harmful to your health and can cause diseases like fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis," Kessler explains.

Alcohol has also been shown to damage the entire gastrointestinal tract. Ethanol can cause direct damage to the esophagus, intestine and stomach, in addition to the liver and pancreas, according to an October 2014 review in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.

Alcohol also increases blood pressure and can damage the heart if it's drunk frequently and in high amounts. "Heavy drinking for men is equal to 15 or more drinks a week, and for women, it's eight or more drinks per week," Kessler says.

2. It's Tied to Cancer

Research has linked alcohol to a number of cancers, including breast, liver and colon cancers.

Alcohol may stimulate cancerous tumor growths and promote the progression and aggressiveness of tumors, a January 2017 review in Pharmacological Research suggests.

Moreover, drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol is associated with an elevated risk of colon cancer, especially those with a family history of the disease, according to a January 2012 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

3. It's Associated With Osteoporosis

Heavy drinking is linked to an increased risk for osteoporosis, particularly in young women, according to a June 2018 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

While osteoporosis, which is characterized by low bone mineral density, is usually more apparent in older adults, drinking too much alcohol in early adulthood can inhibit young adults from reaching their peak bone mass.

4. It's Tied to Weight Gain

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to weight gain, given that it serves up seven calories per gram and offers little, if any, nutrients along with it.

To put that into perspective, one shot of liquor has around 80 calories (before you pour in caloric mixers!) while a glass of wine can boast about 120 calories. Drinking too much can easily pack on the calories and lead to weight gain.

And being overweight or obese can put you at a high risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other comorbid illnesses.

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5. It Lowers Your Inhibitions

Another disadvantage of alcohol is that it can cloud your judgment, paving the way for destructive decisions such as getting behind the wheel of a car, the CDC states.

In excess, alcohol can cause alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that can be fatal resulting from high blood alcohol levels.

Effects of Binge Drinking

When it comes to drinking, the law of averages doesn't apply.

As mentioned above, there might be some advantages to drinking alcohol, so long as you don't exceed one drink a day for women and up to two for men. However, the same benefit doesn't apply to saving up all those weekday drinks and drinking six to seven drinks on one weekend night.

This habit is known as binge drinking, and it's the riskiest pattern of consumption. When you binge drink, the health effects are much like those of a heavy drinker.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans define binge drinking as downing more than five drinks in two hours if you're a man and four drinks in two hours if you're a woman.

Excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to stroke, the American Heart Association warns. Binging can also lead to fetal alcohol syndrome for women who are pregnant, cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death. The rates of high blood pressure increase and you're more likely to have a stroke.

Binge drinking is also associated with up to a 50 percent increase in breast cancer risk compared to low-average drinking, a September 2017 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows.

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How to Enjoy Alcohol the Healthy Way

First off (and we cannot stress this enough) avoid binge drinking and try to sip a glass of water in between each alcoholic drink.

To help you choose healthier alcoholic drinks, Kessler shares some of her favorite cocktail and drink ideas below.

When choosing prosecco or champagne, go for extra-brut, ultra brut or brut nature, which indicate that it's lower in sugar. Use fresh ingredients like raspberries, cucumber slices and fresh herbs to enhance the flavor of your drink without adding sugar.

For a healthier mixer, go for club soda, seltzer or flavored waters with no added sugar instead of fruit juices and sodas. If you're a beer fan, opt for light beer to cut down on calories and carbs.

"If you're at a party, commit to having two drinks and never drink on an empty stomach. It can be helpful to eat a little snack before drinking as well," Kessler says. Check out these low-sugar cocktail recipes for more ideas:

  • Tequila, club soda and lime
  • Mezcal with a slice of orange
  • Mix seltzer with your wines and add ice for a longer-lasting drink

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