Are the Benefits of Alcohol Too Good to Be True?

Are the Benefits of Alcohol Too Good to Be True?

The health risks of drinking are too numerous to ignore.

You’ve probably heard plenty about the health benefits of drinking wine or alcohol—and drinking to good health definitely sounds like a win-win if you love a good bottle of vino. But the evidence isn’t 100 percent in the corner of health benefits, and there are lots of variables, such as the amount you drink, how frequently you drink and other health considerations.

Before you pour up your next drink, it's important to understand the risks.

The darker side of alcohol
Unfortunately for cocktail connoisseurs, there are negative effects of drinking. Simply put, drinking too much on occasion or, worse, over time, can have a negative impact on your health in multiple ways:

  • Interferes with brain function, making it hard to think clearly; it also has a negative effect on mood and behavior
  • Damages the heart, increasing the risk of arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), stroke and other heart conditions
  • Leads to liver problems, including fatty liver (steatosis) and cirrhosis. If you already have liver disease of any kind, refrain from drinking alcohol.
  • Increases risk of certain cancers, including breast, liver and throat; if you already have cancer, there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption.
  • Risk of injury and accidents
  • Lowers inhibitions, which may lead to risky sexual and other dangerous behaviors

So, what’s moderation?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), moderate alcohol consumption is one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. But people often misjudge how much alcohol is in one drink. Here's what a standard cocktail looks like are the amounts:

  • 5 ounces of wine, 12 percent alcohol
  • 12 ounces of beer, 5 percent alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, 40 percent alcohol

And if you save up your drinking for weekends or ever binge drink, you’ve just dumped the health benefits down the drain. Moderate alcohol research typically takes into account having one drink a day with food. What's considered a binge? Four or more drinks in a 2-hour period for women and five or more for men.

Keep in mind, too, that these are the accepted US guidelines for drinking for good health. In 2016, the UK revised its guidelines on the basis of their studies linking moderate drinking with a higher risk of throat, breast and other cancers. And a 2017 study published in the BMJ found increased risk of brain shrinkage for moderate to heavy drinkers.

Heavy drinking is defined as consuming 15 or more drinks per week for men and eight or more drinks per week for women. While the BMJ and other UK studies aren’t conclusive, it makes a case for making sure that you stay within current guidelines.

The potential benefits
You should know: The benefits might not outweigh the risks. Here’s what researchers have found so far about the possible advantages of drinking wine and alcohol in moderation:

  • It may improve heart health. Alcohol raises the level of “good” HDL cholesterol, which helps fight plaque build-up in arteries and may help prevent the formation of blood clots. Studies have found that moderate drinking may reduce death from cardiovascular causes by up to 20 to 40 percent. However, it’s not possible to make a direct correlation between moderate drinking and improved health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People who drink occasionally also tend to be healthier in other ways, which can make these studies difficult to interpret.
  • It may increase sensitivity to insulin. Insulin holds the key to regulating blood sugar; when this sensitivity is increased, it helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. However, alcohol doesn’t help balance blood sugar for those with diabetes: special precautions must be taken for what and how much you drink.

Despite the potential benefits, drinking isn't safe for everyone. Anyone with conditions like heart disease or diabetes should talk to a healthcare provider about the potential risks of consuming alcohol. Young women at a low risk for heart disease may also want to cut back or speak with a doctor. Alcohol consumption can increase a woman's breast cancer risk, which may outweigh any potential heart benefits.

How to keep tabs on your drinking
Think you’re drinking too much? Take action to drink less before alcohol addiction or other serious health problems start.

Tracking alcohol consumption with your smartphone can help hold you accountable—and you may see patterns for when and where you tend to drink. That alone can help you avoid those situations, make a conscious decision to cut back or, if that’s not enough, seek help.

One simple, no-pressure way to track alcohol consumption is with Sharecare’s app, available for free on  iOS and Android devices. Here's how to get started.

For Android and iOS users:

  • Alcohol consumption is tracked manually via the Tracker.
  • If you don’t drink alcohol, you can turn this tracker off.

For desktop users:

  • If you don’t have a mobile device, you can track alcohol consumption manually via the desktop Tracker.
  • If you don’t drink alcohol, you can turn this tracker off.

Keeping alcohol consumption within the healthy range is one simple way to boost your health to lower your risk of dependence and devastating consequences. Take the guesswork out of how much you drink with this easy-to-use tracker.