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Alcohol Consumption-How Much is Too Much and Too Little?

Most Americans drink alcohol. In fact, only about one-third say they never drink, while the rest-about 66 percent according to a 2002 Gallup poll-say they do drink on occasion. But with what seems like almost daily studies alternately touting alcohol's dangers and its benefits, many people are understandably confused: just how much alcohol is really "OK" or even "good" to drink?

Let's start out with the obvious: Drinking too much is bad. That's because, when all is said and done, alcohol is a poison and if you drink enough of it over time, it will affect nearly every organ in your body as such. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is:

  • More than one drink per day on average for women

  • More than two drinks per day on average for men

Note: A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Over time heavy drinking can result in numerous health problems, not to mention put a strain on relationships and emotional health, including:

  • Fatty liver

  • Alcohol hepatitis

  • Alcoholic cirrhosis, which can eventually cause liver failure if drinking isn't stopped

  • Chronic gastritis (a daily recurrence of nausea and sickness)

  • Pancreatitis

  • Brain damage (alcoholic dementia)

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease

  • Obesity (from the increased number of calories consumed)

  • Stroke

  • Osteoporosis

  • Reduced fertility

  • Cancer (mouth, esophagus, liver, stomach, colon, rectum and breast cancer may all be related to alcohol)

  • Alcoholism

Women and men are affected by alcohol differently, and women may develop related health problems sooner than men and from drinking less alcohol.

Some Drinking May be Healthy

Moderate drinking-one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men, according to the CDC-can in fact have health benefits.

Heart disease: While heavy drinking increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, moderate drinking has beneficial heart effects, particularly to those most at risk-men over the age of 45 and post-menopausal women. It appears to reduce the risk of blood clots in coronary arteries that can lead to coronary artery disease and heart attack.

Cholesterol: Related to heart disease, it appears that moderate drinking may raise levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.

Dementia: Moderate drinking reduces the risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, as you age.

Beer ... Wine ... What's the Difference?

Dark Ale

When it comes to drinking, color matters. Dark beer is healthier than light beer, red wine is healthier than white.

When it comes to drinking, the type of alcohol does matter, not so much in the sense of the alcohol itself but because of other components in the drinks.

Red Wine: This is one of the best alcohol choices if you're going to drink because red wine contains an antioxidant known as resveratrol (it's in grape skins and red wine.) Resveratrol belongs to the polyphenol family, which are known to fight the effects of damaging free radicals. Along with fighting free radicals, resveratrol reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer and may one day be used to extend lifespan in humans-already studies have found that it can extend the lifespan of yeast cells by up to 80 percent.

One caveat: Wine is made from grapes and grapes contain sugar. Drinking too much wine can, therefore, affect insulin levels and blood sugar. People with diabetes and other conditions that are monitoring their insulin levels should be aware of this effect.

Dark Beer: This may also be a heart healthy choice, as it appears to reduce the risk of blood clots. But not just any beer will do-dark beer is rich in flavonoids, which, like the resveratrol in red wine, have powerful antioxidant properties.

Says John D. Folts, PhD, professor of medicine and director of the coronary thrombosis research laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, "It's about color. You can see the flavonoids in products on the shelf." For this reason, light beer does not appear to produce the same health effects (nor does white wine produce the same effects as red wine).

Another plus for beer: it contains silicon, a trace element found in the hops that are used for flavor. Silicon in the diet appears to fight against bone loss in men and pre-menopausal women, according to a study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

Note: Beer is also broken down to a sugar in the body, and as such presents a similar risk to insulin levels for diabetics as do red wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Man with Pint of Beer

The consensus? A drink here and there shouldn't harm your health and may even be beneficial. But, if you don't drink, the American Heart Association says you shouldn't start for health purposes.

Not Into drinking? No problem.

While drinking a glass of red wine or a bottle of dark beer (two for men) every day is not likely to harm your health if you're healthy, and in fact may benefit it, most experts, including those at the American Heart Association, say that you shouldn't start drinking (if you don't already) just for health purposes. You can always get plenty of antioxidants in your body by eating fruits and vegetables, or, if you're concerned that you're not eating enough, from high-quality antioxidant supplements.

Some Things to Take Into Account

Definitions of heavy drinking vary from study to study. Some define it as four or more drinks a day, some five drinks a day or more for five days in a row, some more than two drinks a day or one a day for women. So, when looking at the latest research it's important to look at these details when translating the findings to your own life.

Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say that the following people should not consume alcoholic beverages in any amount, and of any kind:

  • Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive

  • People who plan to drive or engage in other activities that require attention or skill

  • People taking medication, including over-the-counter medications

  • Recovering alcoholics

  • Persons under the age of 21


CDC: Alcohol and Public Health

More Americans Drinking Alcohol

BBC News Alcohol

Dr. Weil January 24, 2005

WebMD Health


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