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Alcohol and Your Health

"Here's to your health!" You may hear this toast often, but many of alcohol's effects on the body may actually be harmful to your health. It all depends on how you approach it.

The health hazards associated with heavy alcohol consumption are well documented and range from liver damage to heart disease. Just one night of heavy drinking can cause short-term maladies including headache, body aches, fatigue, nausea, and dehydration. And when heavy drinking becomes a pattern, it puts immense strain on vital organs, jeopardizing a person's health and making his or her RealAge much older.

But alcohol, in moderation, can be good for your health. A growing body of research shows moderate drinkers enjoy lower risks of heart attack and stroke and may live longer than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers. After years of demonizing the drink, some health experts now recommend a moderate serving of red wine, a nip of scotch, or a bit of beer each day. This is generally considered good news, but it has also caused some confusion.

Health experts disagree about alcohol's role in a healthy lifestyle. Although some doctors advocate a daily drink, other doctors question the value of alcohol consumption of any kind. Also, people are sometimes unsure of the definition of "moderate" -- a critical distinction.

"Moderate" can mean different things to different people. For some people it means having a glass or two of wine every night with dinner. For others it means drinking only on the weekends. Still others believe that partaking only at special events and celebrations is the definition of a moderate drinker. This makes it hard for people to know whether their particular drinking habits fit the "healthful" mold or whether they are putting their health on the rocks.

So what about your habits? Are you drinking too much? Just enough? Are you hurting your health if you don't drink at all? And how does your age and gender affect the equation?

Pouring Over Serving Sizes

For people who choose to drink, striking a moderate balance can take careful research as well as practice and experience.

The maximum amount recommended by RealAge for Age Reduction benefits, is no more than one drink of wine, beer, or liquor per day for most women, and two drinks per day for most men. This also is the general recommendation given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Although these guidelines may seem straightforward, studies and surveys reveal a strong possibility this recommendation could be misinterpreted. Many people tend to wing it when it comes to estimating the size of their drink or its alcohol content, and this can lead to unintentional overimbibing.

For example, you may think you're having only one drink when, because of the amount of alcohol in your drink, you're really having two; a small serving of the stronger beers, lagers, and spirits may contain many times the recommended daily amount of alcohol. Or the size of your glass may trick your eyes and lead to larger serving sizes than would be appropriate for maximum RealAge benefits.

A Look at Labels

The amount of alcohol a drink contains depends on many factors. Usually, the alcohol content is determined by fermentation, but different brewing styles and fermentation durations also mean there is little uniformity.

RealAge considers a standard drink to be about half an ounce of alcohol. This corresponds roughly to:

  • 12 fluid ounces of regular beer
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor/distilled spirits (standard shot glass)
  • 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits

However, some drinks contain more than the typical amount of alcohol. The alcohol content can range from about 4% to as high as 18% or more for some beers and wines. Standard shot measurements of alcohol used by bartenders make it easier to gauge how much booze is in your mixed drink, but different glass sizes and heavy pours could result in too big of a drink. Even when mixing a drink yourself, you could make it too strong if you just eyeball it.

An occasional heavy pour or stiff drink is generally not cause for too much alarm, although if you consume alcohol regularly, your best bet is to stick to modest serving containers -- standard size glasses, tumblers, or shot glasses -- and to consult the label for information on alcohol by volume (ABV) or proof. You want your single serving of alcohol to contain about half a fluid ounce of alcohol, or about 12 grams.

What's in a Day?

Another area of confusion regarding the definition of moderate drinking lies in the distribution of drinks throughout the week. Having several drinks on Saturday night is not equivalent to having one drink each evening, as some might believe. These two patterns have very different health implications.

A recent study comparing two groups of drinkers -- one that drank one serving of alcohol every day and another that had several drinks one day per week -- revealed that once-a-week drinkers had more abdominal fat than daily drinkers. Known as binge drinking, this type of drinking behavior makes your RealAge older because excess abdominal fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Binge drinking may also contribute to atrial fibrillation, a heart-rhythm disturbance that causes the upper chambers of the heart to quiver. This decreases the heart's ability to pump blood and increases a person's risk of developing blood clots and having a stroke.

The Benefits Breakdown

Most of the epidemiological studies about moderate alcohol consumption suggest the biggest benefits of moderate drinking are to the cardiovascular system. Dozens of studies connect moderate drinking with a reduced risk of heart attack, ischemic stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes.

There are many possible explanations for these protective effects. Randomized trials consistently demonstrate that moderate daily alcohol intake appears to significantly increase HDL-cholesterol levels. Higher levels of this "good" cholesterol are associated with reductions in coronary heart disease risk. Studies also suggest moderate alcohol consumption may help prevent stroke by decreasing blood levels of a protein that promotes clot formation and increasing levels of an enzyme that helps dissolve clots.

But any benefits are negligible for people under 40. Men over 40 years of age who regularly drink between one and two drinks per day are generally found to have the lowest all-cause mortality. For women, it appears the protective benefits of moderate alcohol consumption may be irrelevant until after menopause. No evidence suggests that drinking in your 30s protects you from having a heart attack in your 50s.

The potential benefits of moderate drinking aren't limited to the heart, however. A long-term study reveals that type 2 diabetes is less likely to occur in moderate drinkers than in nondrinkers. Also, some evidence shows that moderate alcohol consumption inhibits the formation of cholesterol-type gallstones. Some research suggests that consuming alcohol in moderate amounts may help ward off Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia as well.

Is Wine Better?

There is no conclusive evidence that any one type of alcoholic drink offers more protection against heart disease than another. Some studies suggest that wine's health benefits are superior to beer and liquor because of certain compounds in red wine, such as resveratrol and flavonoids. But other studies document the same cardiovascular benefits with all three major forms of alcohol.

System Overload

If you do have an occasional drink, it can be easy to overdo it, even if you don't intend to. After one drink, inhibitions become lowered and judgment can be impaired, making it difficult to adhere to your limits.

Over time, anything beyond moderate drinking can lead to a chronic increase in blood pressure. High blood pressure associated with heavy drinking makes the heart work harder than it needs to and can be a key risk factor for coronary heart disease, leading to heart attacks and strokes. In addition, with increased intake of alcohol, levels of triglycerides in the blood can become elevated, which could contribute to heart problems.

Following alcohol's path through your body helps demonstrate how easy it is to overload your system and accelerate your body's aging.

After alcohol passes your lips, it travels into your stomach and small intestine, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Your blood alcohol content depends on how quickly you drink it, as well as on:

  • Carbonation -- this may increase absorption speed.
  • Stomach contents -- solid food impedes alcohol absorption.
  • Gender -- women have less alcohol-metabolizing enzyme and tend to feel alcohol's effects more quickly than men.
  • Age -- alcohol concentration will reach a higher level in the blood of people over 65 and will circulate in the body longer.
  • Weight -- the less a person weighs, the higher that person's blood alcohol content from drinking a given amount of alcohol.

Once in your bloodstream, alcohol quickly travels through the blood via a network of arteries to your heart, brain, lungs, and organs until it can be broken down. A small amount of the alcohol taken into the body leaves through the lungs, kidneys, and skin, but it is your liver's job to break down the majority of the alcohol with enzymes, purging the blood and body of alcohol's toxic by-products.

However, this is a slow process. The liver can generally only process 1 ounce of liquor an hour. Consuming more than this saturates your system, causing the additional alcohol to accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. The more alcohol in your blood, the greater the effect on your vital organs.

Repairing Past Damage

Can you make up for any of the aging you may have caused your body from past overindulgences? Fortunately, if harmful drinking habits are addressed at an early stage, many of the damaging effects can be reversed either by cutting back on, or abstaining from, alcohol consumption.

Exercising Discretion

Abstaining from alcohol does not make your RealAge older. Most health experts agree that if you don't already drink, the new research on the health benefits of alcohol is not a reason to start.

Whether you choose to drink should also depend on your health interests and health concerns. Certain health conditions require avoiding alcohol completely. Individuals who have liver or pancreatic disease or who have had a hemorrhagic stroke should not consume alcohol because even small amounts could cause serious health complications. And you should refrain from drinking alcohol if your doctor has identified any precancerous signs of cancer of the esophagus, larynx, pharynx, or mouth; some studies suggest having two drinks a day greatly increases your risk for oral and esophageal cancers.

It's also important to consider family history and personal concerns when it comes to drinking. For instance, those with a family history of alcoholism have an increased risk of alcoholism themselves.

Women with a strong family history of breast cancer might decide to forgo alcohol altogether because even small amounts of alcohol may increase breast cancer risk by 30%. However, several recent studies suggest sufficient folate intake may modify the association between alcohol intake and breast cancer risk.

Individuals with conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, ulcers, severe acid reflux, and sleep apnea should seek advice from their healthcare provider about alcohol consumption.

Because alcohol is a depressant at elevated doses, long-term misuse or abuse can ultimately increase anxiety and cause depression. It is also related to problems with sleeping and mood. Alcohol prevents deep sleep and interferes with REM-stage sleep, the dreaming stage of sleep that stimulates the learning centers of the brain. When your blood-alcohol level drops, you begin dreaming much later in the night. This change in sleep pattern may explain why people often feel irritable and somewhat disoriented after a night of heavy drinking.

What's Right for You?

Alcohol is not an essential part of RealAge living. It is not a health food or wonder drug. But for some people it can be an enjoyable complement to a healthy RealAge lifestyle. Your approach to drinking must be reasonable and responsible. If you practice moderation, alcohol can offer some valuable health benefits, particularly for people over 40.

July, 2009