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  » Alcoholism and treatment  »  Are there any benifits of drinking alcohol?
Alcohol and your health: Weighing the pros and cons

For every news story you read about the benefits of alcohol, another seems to warn you of the risks. This conflicting information can be confusing and frustrating.

Unfortunately, researchers have been unable to conclude whether alcohol's health benefits outweigh its risks. You may find no easy answers because so many factors influence the results. Your current health status and medical history plus your age, sex and weight all factor into the equation.

So should you avoid alcohol? Or can you continue to enjoy your wine with dinner? The answer may depend on who you are and how much alcohol you drink.


Heart health

Studies show that moderate alcohol consumption — one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men — lowers the risk of heart attack for people in middle age by roughly 30 percent to 50 percent. If you've had a previous heart attack, alcohol may also have a role in preventing additional heart attacks and reducing your risk of heart failure. Researchers have also found that alcohol can reduce your chances of dying of a heart attack.

Studies also suggest that moderate alcohol consumption decreases your risk of coronary artery disease. The studies indicate that alcohol can raise the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol) in your body. HDL removes cholesterol from your arteries, lowering your risk of atherosclerosis — the accumulation of fatty deposits (plaques) in your arteries.

Stroke prevention

If your blood pressure is normal, alcohol may reduce your risk of ischemic stroke — blockage of an artery supplying blood to your brain. It may help prevent blood clots and reduce the blood vessel damage caused by fat deposits.

Other benefits

Light drinking also has been shown to reduce the development of blocked arteries in your legs (peripheral arterial disease). Preliminary evidence also suggests that small amounts of alcohol may protect against senility and Alzheimer's disease.

There's no agreement on whether wine is better for you than beer or liquor. Some studies suggest that red wine is better for you because it contains such beneficial compounds as resveratrol. Other studies document the same cardiovascular benefits for all three.


When considering the potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, don't forget the potential risks. Studies often reveal conflicting information about alcohol, and many results are often preliminary. But misuse or abuse of alcohol can lead to accidents, emotional problems and alcoholism.

Even in small amounts, alcohol can have negative effects on your health. It can:

  • Slow your brain activity, affecting your alertness, coordination and reaction time
  • Interfere with your sleep and sexual function
  • Produce headaches
  • Raise your blood pressure
  • Contribute to heartburn

Heavy or binge drinking increases your risk of accidents and falls. Over time, heavy drinking raises your risk of:

  • Liver, kidney, lung and heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Osteoporosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity

The American Cancer Society reports that excess alcohol also increases your risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver and breast cancers. When combined with the use of tobacco, excess alcohol intake increases your risk of many types of cancer even more.

In addition, alcohol can interact with many common prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. It can weaken the effects of certain beta blockers and can be dangerous if consumed with tranquilizers, sleeping pills, antihistamines or pain relievers.

If you combine alcohol with aspirin, you face an increased risk of stomach bleeding. And if you use alcohol and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), you increase your risk of liver damage. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration requires that all OTC pain relievers and fever reducers carry a warning label advising those who consume three or more drinks a day to consult with their doctor before using the drug.

Some people shouldn't drink at all because of certain health conditions, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart rhythm abnormalities, such as atrial fibrillation or arrhythmias
  • Liver disease
  • Ulcers
  • Severe acid reflux
  • Sleep apnea

Women who are pregnant, are trying to conceive or are breast-feeding are advised to avoid alcohol. If you have a family history of alcoholism, it's recommended that you not drink.

All in moderation

Until more is known about how alcohol affects your health, your best bet — if you choose to drink — is to drink in moderation. Generally, moderation means no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. Because of their body chemistry and composition, women are more sensitive to alcohol's effects than are men. A drink is defined as 12 ounces (oz.) of beer, 5 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Because of age-related changes, older adults process alcohol more slowly. It takes fewer drinks to become intoxicated, and the effects last longer. For people age 65 and older, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderation as one drink a day or less.

Above all, don't feel pressured to drink. Few medical experts, if any, advise nondrinkers to start drinking. But if you do drink and you're healthy, there's no need to stop as long as you drink responsibly and in moderation.

Alcoholism: Is it Inherited?

Genetic Component Not Yet Identified

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that alcoholism has a genetic component, but the actual gene that may cause it has yet to be identified.
Studies of laboratory animals as well as human test subjects indicate that genetic factors play a major role in the development of alcoholism, but just how much a factor remains undetermined.

Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, but environmental factors could be a factor in many of those cases.

Family, twin and adoption studies have shown that alcoholism definitely has a genetic component. In 1990, Blum et al. proposed an association between the A1 allele of the DRD2 gene and alcoholism. The DRD2 gene is the first candidate gene that has shown promise of an association with alcoholism (Gordis et al., 1990).

Fathers a Factor

A study in Sweden followed alcohol use in twins who were adopted as children and reared apart. The incidence of alcoholism was slightly higher among people who were exposed to alcoholism only through their adoptive families. However, it was dramatically higher among the twins whose biological fathers were alcoholics, regardless of the presence of alcoholism in their adoptive families.
Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) are using fruit flies to find the genetic causes of alcoholism, the Wall Street Journal reported. According to the scientists, drunken drosophila fruit flies behave the same way human do when they are drunk. In addition, a fruit fly's resistance to alcohol appears to be controlled by the same molecular mechanism as humans.

Hugo Bellen, a geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, said the study "lays the foundation for a genetic approach to dissecting the acute, and possibly the chronic, effects" of alcohol in people.

Less Sensitive to Alcohol

In another study scientist selectively bred two strains of mice: those that are not genetically sensitive to alcohol, and those that are acutely genetically sensitive to it. The two strains show markedly different behavior when exposed to identical amounts of alcohol.
The sensitive mice tend to lose their inhibitions and pass out rather quickly, earning them the nickname "long sleepers." "Short sleepers" are mice that are genetically less sensitive to alcohol. They seem to lose fewer inhibitions, and tolerate the alcohol for longer before they pass out.

"Alcohol consumption is influenced by a combination of environmental and genetic factors," said Gene Erwin, PhD, professor of pharmaceutic sciences at the CU School of Pharmacy, "This study indicated that genetic factors play more of a role, and we're trying to understand the power of those genetic factors."

If alcoholism can be traced to a particular gene or combination of genes, how can the information be used?

"These genes are for risk, not for destiny," stressed Dr. Enoch Gordis, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. He added that the research could help in identifying youngsters at risk of becoming alcoholics and could lead to early prevention efforts.