Depending on whom you ask, alcohol can be a blessing or a curse. Although there may be some benefits of drinking alcohol, even the Harvard School of Public Health calls it "both a tonic and a poison," depending on the dose.
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. How alcohol affects someone depends on the person, so everyone should weigh the potential advantages of alcohol consumption against the risks of drinking alcohol regularly.
Benefits of Drinking Alcohol
The benefits of drinking alcohol are nearly always measured in terms of drinking moderately. That means one to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women, according to Harvard. Breaking it down even further, one drink is generally considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits, totaling about 12 to 14 grams of alcohol in each drink.
According to Harvard, more than 100 scientific studies show some advantages of alcohol consumption for heart health. There may be a relationship between moderate drinking and a reduced risk of death from heart attacks, clot-caused strokes and overall cardiovascular causes. Alcohol in reasonable amounts raises your levels of high-density lipoprotein, also known as "good" cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease.
Some types of alcohol are better protectants than others — red wine, specifically, has a high concentration of polyphenols that can reduce blood pressure. The polyphenol called resveratrol in red wine may help prevent damage to blood vessels and protect against blood clots, according to Mayo Clinic.
Disadvantages of Alcohol
Many of the disadvantages of alcohol appear when you round the curve from drinking moderately to drinking heavily or binge drinking. Heavy drinking can lead to inflammation of the liver, known as alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. It also increases blood pressure, can damage the heart muscle and potentially plays a role in the development of several cancers, including breast, colon, mouth and liver, says Harvard.
In addition, heavy drinking increases the risk for osteoporosis, particularly in young women. Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to weight gain, given that it serves up 7 calories per gram without offering any nutrients along with it.
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, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In excess, alcohol can cause alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency resulting from high blood alcohol levels.
Read more: The Health Effects of Two Beers per Day
Effects of Binge Drinking
When it comes to drinking, the law of averages doesn't apply. As mentioned above, there can can be an advantage of alcohol consumption that does not exceed one drink a day. However, the same benefit doesn't apply to saving up all those weekday drinks and consuming 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 consuming more than five drinks in two hours if you're a man and four drinks in two hours if you're a woman.
The American Heart Association warns that excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to stroke. 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.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits
- Mayo Clinic: "Red Wine and Resveratrol: Good for Your Heart?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fact Sheets — Alcohol Use and Your Health"
- American Heart Association: "Alcohol and Heart Health"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020: "Appendix 9. Alcohol"
- National Institutes of Health: Health Risks and Benefits of Alcohol Consumption