5 Hidden Health Benefits of Alcohol

Cirrhosis, liver disease and breast cancer are all negative effects of alcohol consumption. But did you know that light to moderate alcohol use may protect against heart disease and early death? An occasional glass of wine might be the key to a longer life and improved cognition.

An occasional glass of wine might be the key to a longer life and improved cognition. (Image: LightFieldStudios/iStock/GettyImages)

The Negative Effects of Alcohol

Excessive drinking is responsible for more than three million deaths per year, reports World Health Organization (WHO). Furthermore, it's a major contributing factor to approximately 200 diseases and injuries. Heavy drinkers are more likely to develop cardiovascular problems, engage in self-destructive behaviors and commit suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol consumption carries short- and long-term health risks. These include but are not limited to:

  • Car accidents
  • Violent behavior
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Social problems
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer

Heavy drinking has a direct impact on mental health. While alcohol may temporarily relieve depression, it actually makes things worse in the long run. In fact, there is a mutual relationship between depression and alcohol abuse.

Individuals living with this mental disorder are more likely to drink, which in turn, may worsen their symptoms. Sometimes, alcohol use fuels the negative emotions that eventually lead to depression.

Potential Benefits of Drinking

Surprisingly, moderate drinking has the opposite effect. A September 2016 review published in the American Journal of Public Health found that women who have up to one drink per day are less likely to experience cognitive decline. They also face a lower risk of sudden cardiac death, hypertension, stroke and all-cause mortality compared to those drinking more than one serving of alcohol daily.

The downside that is alcoholic beverages — even when consumed in moderation — may increase breast cancer risk and contribute to bone fractures.

Moderate alcohol intake may also protect against cardiovascular problems, the researchers note. In several studies from the above review, the risk of coronary heart disease was lower in women with diabetes who consumed up to 4.9 grams of alcohol per day. Furthermore, those who drank less than 15 grams per day scored higher on cognitive tests than those who didn't drink at all.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, alcohol can be part of a balanced diet when consumed in moderation. If you're a woman, stick to one drink per day. Men, on the other hand, can have up to two daily servings of alcohol. A serving of wine, for example, is one glass (5 ounces).

As you see, alcohol is a double-edged sword. The benefits of drinking are subject to debate, though. Some experts say that moderate alcohol use may increase lifespan, protect against heart disease and reduce diabetes risk. Others claim that no amount of alcohol is safe.

Feeling confused? Here are five surprising benefits of alcohol you might not be aware of.

1. Wine May Promote Fat Loss

Whether you're heading out to a party or spending a cozy evening at home, reach out for a glass of wine rather than soda. With just 125 calories and 3.8 grams of carbs per glass, red wine fits into most diets. One can of cola, by comparison, boasts 155 calories and 38 grams of carbs, including 15 grams of sugar, according to the USDA.

Wine might even help you keep the pounds off. A large-scale study published in the International Journal of Obesity in June 2012 suggests that moderate drinking may lower the risk of becoming overweight or obese. Wine consumption appears to be particularly beneficial. The above effects were observed in postmenopausal women.

This beverage is a good source of polyphenols, which may contribute to weight loss, according to a study featured in the journal Nutrients in May 2017. Higher polyphenol intakes may help reduce body weight, body mass index, waist circumference and obesity rates over time. Furthermore, their slimming effect appears to be higher in women.

These antioxidants also occur naturally in tea, fruits, vegetables and coffee, so wine isn't your only option.

2. Alcohol Could Prevent Gallstones Naturally

Moderate alcohol consumption may also protect against gallstones, as reported in the _American Journal of Public Healt_h review. This condition affects about 10 to 15 percent of Americans, reports the National Institutes of Health. That's about 25 million people. Women, seniors, Mexican Americans and individuals with a family history of gallstones are at greater risk.

According to the above review, moderate drinking may reduce stone formation and increase gallbladder motility. The consumption of as little as 15 grams of alcohol per day was linked to a 14-percent lower risk of gallstones.

A meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology in April 2017 confirms these findings. Each 10-gram per day increase in alcohol intake was associated with a 12 percent decrease in gallstone disease risk.

Again, moderation is the key. As the National Health Service of the United Kingdom points out, drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week may affect the liver and overall health. One unit is 10 milligrams of pure alcohol. A small glass of wine, for example, has 1.5 units of alcohol. Beer, on the other hand, boasts 2 units of alcohol per can.

3. Alcohol May Protect Against Dementia

Drinking in moderation may reduce your odds of developing dementia. This neurodegenerative disease affects memory, reasoning, coordination, cognition and social skills. If left unaddressed, it may lead to depression, anxiety, paranoia and other mental disorders. Some forms of the disease, such as Alzheimer's and vascular dementia, are not reversible.

Heavy drinking is a contributing factor to this disease, according to a January 2019 review featured in Alzheimer's Research & Therapy. When consumed in excess, alcohol may alter the brain structure and lead to cognitive impairment.

Light to moderate drinking among adults, on the other hand, may protect against dementia and cognitive decline. The current evidence is conflicting, though.

Another study published in the BMJ in June 2017 states that light drinking has no advantages over abstinence. Furthermore, the risk of right-sided hippocampal atrophy is three times higher in adults who drink moderately. Hippocampal atrophy may lead to Alzheimer's disease and impaired memory function.

As the Alzheimer's Society points out, alcohol may have protective effects on the brain. However, many studies may not be accurate because they've been conducted on both former drinkers and lifetime non-drinkers. Former alcoholics, for example, may have already experienced brain damage to some degree. Therefore, they cannot be placed in the same category as those who never drank.

4. Alcohol May Keep Diabetes at Bay

More than 30 million Americans were struggling with diabetes in 2015, with about 1.5 million new cases diagnosed every year. Those suffering from this disease are two to three times more likely to have a stroke or a heart attack, warns the World Health Organization. They are also at risk for nerve damage, blindness, kidney failure and circulatory problems.

This may come as a surprise, but moderate drinking might help lower your risk of diabetes, as noted in the American Journal of Public Health review. Women who consume one to two drinks per day have 40 percent fewer chances of developing this disease compared to non-drinkers. The consumption of 15 grams of alcohol per day may help increase insulin sensitivity and prevent diabetes.

A 12-year follow-up study published in Scientific Reports in August 2017 had similar findings. As the researchers note, drinking more than 30 grams of alcohol per day may increase diabetes risk. Light and moderate alcohol intakes, on the other hand, may have protective effects.

The relationship between diabetes and alcohol consumption is complex, so take these findings with a grain of salt. If you suffer from this disorder, ask your doctor whether or not you can have an occasional drink.

5. Moderate Drinking Improves Blood Lipids

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. However, not all cholesterol is the same. Non-high-density lipoproteins, or LDL cholesterol, builds up inside your arteries and affects cardiovascular health. High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, is known as the "good" cholesterol as it helps your body get rid of LDL.

In April 2017, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a review assessing the effects of alcohol on blood cholesterol. Researchers found that moderate drinking led to slower decreases in HDL cholesterol levels, depending on the type of beverage consumed.

Wine, beer and liquor had the greatest effect on HDL concentrations. Beer appears to be particularly beneficial, as it may help protect against heart disease.

Read more: 18 Healthy Beers

Another research paper, published in the July 2012 edition of the journal Nutrients, suggests that wine and beer may improve cardiovascular health. These beverages are rich in polyphenols and other antioxidants with anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and hypotensive properties. When consumed in moderation, they may lower the risk of cardiovascular problems and even cancer.

Now that you know more about the pros and cons of alcohol consumption, it's up to you to decide whether or not your drinking habit is healthy. A glass of beer or red wine is likely safe — just make sure you don't go overboard. Ask your doctor about it, especially if you take medications. Alcohol may interact with certain drugs, including antidepressants, statins, ACE inhibitors, antacids and pain relievers.

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