I don’t know about you, but I’ve been exposed to so many articles recently outlining varying health benefits of red wine. From “Drinking two glasses per day can help with weight loss and fat burning,” to “Drinking red wine can help to prevent cardiovascular problems.” And while a small glass of wine can have its benefits (as with anything else in moderation), I do think we should be taking these reports with a grain of salt.
When we talk about alcohol and its effect on the body, – whether it be positive or negative – we really need to consider the amount we are talking about. A standard alcoholic drink is 14 grams of alcohol. This equates to 12 ounces of beer (approximately 5% alcohol content), 8.5 ounces of malt liquor (approximately 9% alcohol content), 5 ounces of wine (approximately 12% alcohol content), 3.5 ounces of fortified wine (i.e. sherry or port), or 1.5 ounces of liquor (distilled spirits; 40% alcohol content). Moderate alcohol consumption for women is considered by the USDA to be no more than one standard alcoholic drink per day. For men, it is considered to be no more than two standard alcoholic drinks per day. Heavy alcohol consumption for women is considered by the USDA to be more than 7 standard alcoholic drinks per week or more than 3 standard alcoholic drinks in one day. For men, it is defined by the USDA as more than 14 standard alcoholic drinks per week, or more than 4 standard alcoholic drinks in a day(1).
Many people do not realize they are consuming moderate or heavy amounts of alcohol. Furthermore, they’re likely not aware of the varying health effects that this can yield. How many times have you started with “just a glass” of wine and ended up drinking two or three? It’s not tough to do!
Light to moderate alcohol consumption is likely effective in helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. It has been shown to reduce risk of plaque build-up, heart attacks and deaths from heart disease. One to two alcoholic drinks/day increases protective HDL and Apo A1 cholesterol, decreases LDL, triglycerides and ApoB (an inflammatory cholesterol fraction), decreases factors that influence blood clotting, may decrease systolic blood pressure, has been shown to reduce inflammatory marker blood biomarker, hsCRP. However, light to moderate consumption does not seem to have any effect in men with already established coronary heart disease. This is a major caveat to be aware of as many people in the U.S. already have evidence of established heart disease with the obesity epidemic that our nation faces. Today, more and more children are being diagnosed with obesity, so this must be taken into account as well. About half of all Americans are at risk for heart disease and heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States(2).
Although it has been indicated that red wine may be better, there is no conclusive evidence from clinical studies. Often, people point to the polyphenol resveratrol that is in red wine to consider its side effects. You’d have to consume a ton of red wine to get any benefit from the resveratrol in it. The majority of resveratrol in supplements is not from grapes, but from Japanese knotweed, which is a herb that grows like a weed in the U.S. While Japanese knotweed, with all of its phytochemicals, is a wonderful herb with many health benefits, including immune supportive effects and anti-inflammatory effect, the research on the cardiovascular benefits the resveratrol constituent is insufficient. It should also be known that fruits and veggies generally have more polyphenols then wine. Most people would benefit more by focusing on consuming 5-10 servings of veggies and a few fruits per day and avoid drinking alcohol.
I have a lot of patients with estrogen dominance, where they have too much estrogen in ratio to progesterone. Over consuming alcohol can contribute to many common PMS and other female health concerns. Alcohol exacerbates these symptoms. Additionally, I have many patients at increased risk for breast cancer, sleep disturbances and symptomatic menopause. If you fall into these populations, I generally advise limiting alcohol. While many people use alcohol to help relax before bed, the medical evidence shows alcohol to be disruptive to the sleep cycle. Magnesium chelates, Epson salt baths and meditation are some examples of more effective and less harmful choices to help get relaxed. Stress unfortunately cannot be drunk away. As a culture, the research shows that we all can benefit from daily meditation – even when just a small group of individuals takes the time daily to meditate. The Transcendental Meditation Center in Ashburn is an excellent local resource for those seeking a new way to get some internal peace. Transcendental meditation is the type of meditation that has the most medical evidence of benefit behind it and is a very easy technique to learn and implement into a twice daily practice. You can learn more about it here.
Now, we all know the risks of over consumption of alcohol, or “getting drunk!” In addition to the terrible “hangover,” known risks of over consumption or dependence includes central nervous system effects (kills your brain cells, as alcohol is a cellular toxin), cirrhosis, malnutrition, and mouth/esophageal/ laryngeal/liver cancer. More than two drinks per day can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. Light to moderate consumption can increase risk of hemorrhagic stroke. In women, one or more alcoholic drinks might increase risk of breast cancer 2 – 15% and increases mortality from breast cancer as much as 30%, especially if daily intake of folate is 300mcg or less. Alcohol can also increase asthma and migraines in those sensitive to sulfites and yeast. I have many patients with acid reflux who are drinking 1-2 drinks every night, along with caffeine and often soda. While it is no surprise to me, they are often pleasantly surprised when their acid reflux resolves after eliminating these known triggers.
Because alcohol increases your liver’s detoxification pathway for alcohol consumption, it may disrupt the metabolism of many medications. Birth control is a good example of this. Birth control is not as effective when drinking alcohol. So, if you are trying to prevent pregnancy, using a second method of birth control when drinking is very important. If you take medications, I recommend that you consult with your doctor or pharmacist to see if any can be consumed with alcohol.
If you have pre-diabetes or diabetes, you might consider reducing your alcohol consumption. While light drinking can actually contribute to low blood glucose, heavy drinking can cause insulin resistance, which leads to the development of type 2 diabetes. This is because heavy drinking can cause inflammation of the pancreas and destroy the pancreas’ ability to make insulin. Alcohol is nutrient light and high in calories. “One pint of lager can be equivalent to a slice of pizza.” So, drinking can also contribute to weight gain and obesity, and is an independent risk factor for many diseases.
A final note, alcohol consumption weakens the body’s immune system, making it more susceptible to disease and infection. Drinking more than three to four drinks on a single occasion will suppress the immune system even up to 24 hours later. Chronic drinkers have higher rates of diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. This is important to note, especially as we’re in cold and flu season.
For more information, here is a summary of the research on alcohol and its effect on the body.