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Article Summary

Drinking and Your Health

In 1991, the CBS news program 60 Minutes ran a story called "The French Paradox" which suggested that drinking alcohol, or at least red wine, reduced the risk of heart disease. Many people considered this a medical recommendation to drink. Moderate drinking may have some benefits, but it are also carries increased health risks.

A "drink" is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

What is "moderate drinking"?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services define moderate drinking as no more than:
one drink a day for women and people over 60
two drinks a day for men (and no more than one a hour).

They also recommend that the following people should not drink at all :

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.

A daily rather than weekly amount is suggested. It's healthier to drink a small amount daily than to binge (more than 4 drinks for men, more than 3 for women) on weekends or special occasions.

Health benefits of moderate drinking

Psychological - stress reduction
Cardiovascular - reduction in risk of coronary artery disease
Increased appetite - especially in the elderly

Health risks of moderate drinking

strokes caused by bleeding
medication interactions - including non-prescription medication
breast cancer - due to increased estrogen; this is a risk for premenopausal women
birth defects - fetal alcohol effect (FAE) and low birth rates are risks of even light consumption
heavier drinking - recovering alcoholics and people predisposed to alcoholism are unlikely to maintain moderation; the health risks of heavier drinking outweigh any benefits.

A Study on Drinking and Health Risks

While drinking can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, it does increase other health risks. In the following chart, mortality rates for non-drinkers serve as the baseline health risk (1.0 on the vertical axis). The risk for coronary heart disease even for heavy drinkers remains below the baseline; but risk of death from other causes goes up. The risk of death from liver disease skyrockets off the chart after only a couple of drinks a day.

Source: Bofetta, P, and Garfinkel, L. "Alcohol drinking and mortality among men enrolled in an American Cancer Society prospective study." Epidemiology 1:342-348, 1990.

When considering moderate drinking for health benefits, it's important to weight the risks along with the benefits. The Department of Health and Human Services does not recommend that nondrinkers or infrequent drinkers start drinking regularly to lower their risk of cardiovascular disease. Vulnerability to alcohol-related problems is not always predictable. Proper diet and exercise are safer alternatives.

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