If you enjoy a glass of wine while cooking dinner or a beer at the ballgame, you’ve probably found yourself saying “one drink is healthy!”
National Geographic Fellow and bestselling author Dan Buettner identified five communities with the highest life expectancy, or the highest amount of people who live to 100, called Blue Zones. What Buettner found was surprising: people living in these Blue zones drink moderately and regularly (one to two glasses of wine per day) with friends and food.
Many research studies over the years have backed up this idea. For example, one study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found people ages 55 to 65 who abstained from alcohol actually had a higher risk of dying over the next 20 years.
But do we really have enough data behind the specific claim that alcohol can lengthen your life? Not exactly, says Family Practitioner Shamil Castro, MD of Capital Regional Medical Center in Tallahassee, Florida.
While drinking alcohol may provide health benefits for certain people, there are many other parameters to keep in mind when it comes to alcohol. Moderate drinking isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but there are many factors to consider.
What is moderation?
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderate alcohol consumption as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, says Dr. Castro. Here’s how one drink actually breaks down:
- 5 ounces of wine, 12% alcohol
- 12 ounces of beer, 5% alcohol
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, 40% alcohol
And you can’t save up and drink a whole bottle of wine on a weekend night. In most instances, moderate alcohol research takes into account having one drink a day with food.
3 potential benefits of moderate drinking
The benefits of alcohol can be complicated because there are many other ways to get the same benefits, but here’s the science behind all of those moderate drinking claims.
- May improve your heart health
Numerous studies show that moderate drinkers are 20 to 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack than non drinkers, says Castro. Why?
Alcohol—in moderation—encourages a small increase in HDL (good) cholesterol, the kind that fights cholesterol buildup in arteries and has anti-blood clotting properties. And alcohol itself in various drinks may prevent platelets from sticking together and blood clots from forming. Both of these benefits reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Other ways to improve your heart health sans drinking might include getting two and half hours of physical activity per week and a diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Lowers type 2 diabetes risk
One analysis of 15 studies including almost 370,000 people, found that moderate drinkers had a 30 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
“Alcohol increases the sensitivity to insulin, and when you increase the sensitivity to insulin, you’re actually helping decrease the risk of diabetes and stroke,” says Castro.
You can also lower your risk by maintaining a healthy weight and eliminating things like chips and fatty sweets from your diet.
- Reduces anxiety
Ever feel content and relaxed after your monthly girl’s night? You’re not imagining it. Taking a break to socialize with friends and enjoy a glass of wine every once and a while may improve your mood and help with anxiety.
And one small Scottish study found that men felt that sharing a pint together helped build stronger friendships and made them more open to discussing mental health issues and emotions.
If you want to strengthen social bonds outside of the bar, try volunteering for a local charity or planning a day-long hiking adventure with friends.
What type of alcohol is best?
When it comes to alcohol and your health, surprisingly, most studies take into account all types.
“Wine does have a lot of other things that can help relax the blood vessels and blood vessel walls and prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol,” says Castro.
And beer and spirits tend to have more calories. “When you drink spirits, you tend to mix the liquor with sugary juices, and that’s what causes it to be a little ‘less healthy,’ than a glass of wine,” says Castro.
The bottom line? When it comes to benefits, most of the data says all types can be beneficial. But if you want an extra health boost, reach for red wine.
Drinking is not for everyone
But not everyone should drink, and you shouldn’t start drinking just for the possible benefits.
“American dietary guidelines state that if you do not already consume alcohol, you shouldn't start,” says Castro.
If a patient who is a smoker comes in with high cholesterol and asks if they should start drinking, we say absolutely not, she adds. “We need to worry about decreasing other risk factors by quitting smoking, and starting an exercise and weight loss program.”
On the flip side, if the same patient was drinking three beers a day, changing that habit to one glass of wine may be a more positive change.
Women who are pregnant and anyone with a history of alcoholism should avoid drinking all together. And if you’ve been drinking, don’t get behind the wheel. Plan ahead and call a transportation service or a designated driver.
Alcohol has negative effects, too.
Drinking more alcohol than recommended can increase your risk of high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, liver disease, accidents, alcoholism and suicide.
Once you factor in all the risks and benefits, it’s possible that they cancel each other out. But each individual person’s risk depends on a lot of factors, like your age, overall health and lifestyle. That’s why it’s important to have an open discussion with your doctor about whether or not you should drink alcohol. The RealAge test can also help you determine whether or not your alcohol habits are healthy.
“There are other ways to live longer and healthier, like regular exercise and a healthy diet. There’s a lot more research behind exercise and diet than drinking alcohol when it comes to living longer and healthier,” says Castro.