Alcohol In Moderation Is Good For You, Right?
Today I want to talk to you about alcohol.
This is a topic that is really overlooked. Alcohol is rarely part of the discussion as far as health is concerned. People debate coffee endlessly, they demonize cow’s milk and pop, yet no one questions alcohol! Doctors often don’t even broach this subject with their patients because they’ve also read that “a little alcohol may actually be beneficial for you”. Unfortunately, this has also created a culture where alcohol is normalized – where you need a drink to take the edge off after work, or where you can’t possibly have a good time with friends unless you’re having a drink.
Many people are consuming alcohol without any regard for whether this is actually healthy for us or not. We need to confront this question head on: Is alcohol good for us? How much should we be drinking? You might be thinking, “everything is okay in moderation, right Dr. Morsillo?”…or, “I heard it’s actually healthy for us to consume a little alcohol!”. Well, the answer to this is not so clear and I’m going to explain why that is.
Where did we get the idea that alcohol, in moderation, is healthy for us?
Much of this notion began with the “French Paradox”. The “French Paradox” refers to researchers findings that people from France had significantly lower rates of cardiovascular disease than other parts of the world. “How could this be?”, researchers pondered. The French have lots of bread, cheese, eggs, and high saturated fat intake, so this didn’t make any sense. Some researchers suggested that perhaps the lowered risk of heart problems was owing to the fact that the French regularly consumed wine. And this wine contains lots of polyphenols (most notably Resveratrol), so this must confer cardio-protective benefits. The truth is, there’s many variables to explain their findings – being more active, having lower stress levels, a greater sense of community, a very good healthcare system, having lower rates of obesity, etc. However, out of this “French Paradox” grew the notion that alcohol might actually confer some health benefits!
Future studies regarding alcohol actually seemed to strengthen this notion. Numerous studies have found that there is a “J-shaped relationship” between alcohol intake and both, mortality and cardiovascular disease. “What exactly does this mean, Dr. Morsillo?”. What this means is that the people who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol actually had the lowest health risks! The people who consumed high amounts of alcohol obviously had the greatest health risks; but, those who abstained from alcohol also had greater health risks compared to moderate drinkers!! So everyone thought, “amazing – having some alcohol is actually good for me!”.
Is it even true that alcohol, in moderation, is good for you?
We talked about how moderate drinkers were actually found to have lower health risks than those who abstained from alcohol. But wait a second – isn’t it possible for the group of “abstainers” to include previous alcoholics who have now quit drinking? or people with serious health issues that have decided or have been told to quit drinking? or people who can’t have alcohol because of medications they’re taking? All of these people would artificially make it look like the “abstainers” have greater health risks than moderate drinkers!
This is exactly what a meta-analysis by KW Fillmore et al. (1) decided to look into. The researchers examined studies that excluded those who abstained from alcohol due to illness or medications. What they then found is that there is no difference in coronary heart disease risk between “true abstainers” and light/moderate drinkers. This would indicate that drinking does not provide any benefits for heart health.
This study looked at heart health, but what about cancers? According to the CDC, “the less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk for cancer” (2). This applies especially to the following cancers:
– Mouth and throat
– Colon and rectum
Another study by Woods AM, et al. (3), published in the Lancet, assessed health outcomes in approximately 600,000 drinkers. They found that those who drank more than 6 pints of beer or 7 glasses of wine per week were more likely to die sooner than those who drank below this limit. They calculated that the average life span would be shortened by 1.3 years in women and 1.6 years in men. This study prompted the United Kingdom to lower their guidelines on alcohol consumption to no more than 1 drink per day, which is lower than many other parts of the world.
In conclusion, research suggests that alcohol consumption has no cardiovascular benefits, that alcohol increases the risk of several forms of cancer, and that alcohol can shorten the average life span. It seems like the claim that alcohol has health benefits is misleading. As a naturopathic doctor, I hope this article opens up more dialogue about this topic and helps us to practice better preventive healthcare.
Yours in health,
Dr. Michael Morsillo, H.B.Sc., N.D.
Newmarket Naturopathic Doctor
16655 Yonge St., Newmarket, ON
905-898-1844 ext. 135
1) Fillmore KM, et al. 2007. Moderate Alcohol Use and Reduced Mortality Risk: Systematic Error in Prospective Studies and New Hypotheses. Ann Epidemiol. Vol. 17 (5 Suppl): S16-23.
2) Center for Disease Control. 2019. Preventing Cancer by Reducing Excessive Alcohol Use. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/reducing-excessive-alcohol-use/index.htm. Accessed on May 21, 2020.
3) AM Wood, et al. 2018. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant date for 599,912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. The Lancet. Vol. 391; Issue 10129; p. 1513-1523.