Enjoy the Benefits of Alcohol by Knowing the Risks

Adjust your Alcohol Intake Based on New Scientific Evidence

–Mitzi Collinsworth, February 21, 2021


Alcohol consumption dates back to 7000BC, originating from Jiahu, an ancient Chinese farming settlement. The type of alcohol derived from the local natural resource's farming region. Ancient civilizations fermented rice, wheat, maize, cactus, sugar cane, honey, fruit, and more. The list is quite extensive yet impressive, considering the creativity used in the fermentation process that is centuries old (Wikipedia, 2021).

The benefits of alcohol go as far back as their original origin. Many civilizations believed alcohol consumption in moderation provided health benefits, and anything in excess was deemed harmful. In 1500, Medieval Europe used alcohol to avoid water-borne diseases. Some civilizations viewed alcohol as a divine drink either sent to them by the heavens or to celebrate a god. It was common to consume alcohol during meals or in larger consumptions during feasts or festivals (Wikipedia, 2021).

Many modern societies still consume similar alcoholic drinks customary to their local origin. However, our international trading system allows most of the world to enjoy all different alcohol types.

The Risks

I am sharing the risks of alcohol consumption first because I believe it is better to end on a positive note. Let's dive into the risks so you can determine how much you should consume based on the latest fact-based research.

Global Disease. "Alcohol consumption, particularly heavier drinking, is an important risk factor for many health problems and, thus, is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. In fact, alcohol is a necessary underlying cause for more than thirty conditions and a contributing factor to many more" (Rehm, 2011). The most common alcohol-related conditions are the following:

Infectious Disease. You may be wondering how consuming alcohol can put you at risk for infectious diseases like AIDS, Hepatitis, STDs, COVID-19, and other common viruses. There is a link to contracting these diseases because alcohol decreases our inhibitions and increases risky behavior, leading to interactions exposing individuals to these disease risks. These risks significantly increase when drinking heavily or binging. Your ability to make safe decisions under this type of influence decreases.

Cancer. Our ability to break down alcohol varies based on our genetics. It is well known that certain ethnicities struggle to breakdown alcohol compared to others. "The primary manifestation is a highly visible facial flushing (47-85% in Orientals vs. 3-29% in Caucasians) accompanied by other objective and subjective symptoms of discomfort" (Chan, 1986). These symptoms also include the Native American populations in North and South America.

These symptoms derive from the inability to process the broken down by-product of alcohol, "acetaldehyde–a chemical that can damage cells and their DNA" (Smith, 2021). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified acetaldehyde as a known cancer-causing substance, also known as a carcinogen. "The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has also listed acetaldehyde as a Group 1 carcinogen" found primarily in air toxins (Wikipedia, 2021).

Acetaldehyde is not only found in alcohol. This organic chemical compound is also found naturally in coffee, bread, fruit, and plants. This chemical gets into our air by industrial waste, car exhaust, and plant-based building materials. Scientists found that this chemical's exposure comes from spending time indoors around building materials, laminate, linoleum, varnish, paints, and wood materials (Wikipedia, 2021). Acetaldehyde is in both cannabis and tobacco smoke. Our exposure to acetaldehyde comes more from air exposure than ingestion.

It is important to note that even though we cannot control our environmental exposure, we can reduce this carcinogen by drinking alcohol in moderation. Excessive alcohol abuse can lead to the following:

Diabetes. Excessive alcohol consumption can take a toll on your pancreas and affect your body's ability to control blood sugar. This toll can lead to chronic inflammation in the pancreas leading to pancreatitis. This condition is not reversible and will lead to type-2 diabetes. Often this condition is accompanied by obesity, but not always.

Neuropsychiatric Disease. This type of mental disease can stem from excessive alcohol consumption, like alcoholism. Alcoholism can lead to malnutrition, causing memory loss, dementia, hallucinations, hormone disruption, and brain damage (Rawat et al., 2016).

Cardiovascular Disease. In most recent research studies, cardiovascular disease's primary connection stemming from alcohol is binge drinking. Individuals who binge or drink heavily are at the highest risk for stroke, inflammation, and arteriosclerosis–hardening of the arteries. Obesity and smoking increase this risk dramatically, putting too much stress on the body. There is also some associated risk with increased blood pressure or atrial fibrillation in non-heavy drinkers.

Liver and Pancreas. It is well known that alcohol abusers are at risk for developing cirrhosis of the liver, a scarring type of irreversible damage. However, recent research shows that the pancreas endures similar scarring resulting in pancreatitis. Obesity, smoking, and genetic factors can contribute to this long-term damage.

Unintentional and Intentional Injury. When individuals consume alcohol more than their bodies can tolerate, there can be unfortunate consequences. Unintentional injuries consist of harm brought to the individual or those around them, including broken bones, head trauma, alcohol poisoning, and car-related injury or death. The intentional injury involves violence, either to the individual or someone else. These acts of violence include rape, murder, assault, and abuse. These two categories of injury, unfortunately, are a by-product of overconsumption. Please remember never to drink and drive. The risk is never worth it.

The Benefits

After learning about the risks involved with overconsumption, it's time to discuss the benefits. Like anything, good things come in moderation. Ancient civilizations realized the benefits of alcohol long before us.

Most studies focus on red wine benefits, specifically Pinot noir and St. Laurent, due to their high trans-resveratrol levels. "This is due, in part, to the presence and amount of important antioxidants in red wine, and, therefore, research has focused on them. Wine polyphenols, especially resveratrol, anthocyanins, and catechins, are the most effective wine antioxidants" (Snopek et al., 2018).

Red wine is high in antioxidants because the main ingredient is grapes. Antioxidants are essential to ward off free radicals in the body. Polyphenols in red wine are plant compounds containing a high level of antioxidants. "The most important food sources for polyphenols are commodities widely consumed in large quantities such as fruit and vegetables, green tea, black tea, red wine, coffee, chocolate, olives, and extra virgin olive oil. Herbs and spices, nuts, and algae are also potentially significant for supplying certain polyphenols. Some polyphenols are specific to a particular food (flavanones in citrus fruit, isoflavones in soya, phloridzin in apples); whereas others, such as quercetin, are found in all plant products such as fruit, vegetables, cereals, leguminous plants, tea, and wine" (Wikipedia, 2021).

Recently, researchers "conducted a study about the foods and beverages contributing to antioxidant intake in a group of women aged 50 to 69 years. Women with a higher antioxidant intake (major contributors were coffee, tea, red wine, blueberries, walnuts, oranges, cinnamon, and broccoli) were at a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases, heart arrhythmia, hypertension, and diabetes. Women with regular red wine consumption had the lowest risk" (Snopek et al., 2018).

Numerous studies compare the positive and negative effects of moderate alcohol consumption. These findings found low to moderate consumption of wine, beer, and spirits created the following benefits:

Not All Alcohol is Equal

To get the full benefits of alcohol, you need to limit higher calories, fat, and sugar. Alcohol drinks like frozen margaritas, daiquiris, mixed spirits with soda or syrups, and mixed spirits with dairy, although delicious, can give you more than you bargained for calorie-wise and decrease the alcoholic benefits.

It is easy to drink too many calories. The average glass of beer of wine is about 160 calories. If you consume two or more, that is comparable to a small steak, baked potato, and vegetables. You want those calories to provide all of your necessary daily vitamins, and alcohol will not suffice. Overindulging will also lead to weight gain. I have created meal plans for clients reducing alcohol intake. After four to six weeks, the average client lost about fifteen to thirty pounds by reducing alcohol intake. This result also occurs from the reduction of Starbucks Frappuccinos. You can have too much of a good thing.

The following list will be your best choice of alcohol consumption in moderation and avoid weight gain.

Image provided from healthline.com

Recommended Alcohol Intake

The daily recommended intake for alcohol is based on low to moderate consumption to reap the benefits and reduce the risks. As your intake increases, so does the percentage of chance for disease. For example, a moderate-high (8-28 servings per week) intake increases cancer risk up to 40% compared to a low-moderate (7-14 servings per week) intake increasing only 7%.

The intake recommendation is as follows:

Image provided from cdc.gov

The CDC Guidelines note that some people should not drink alcohol at all, such as:

  • If they are pregnant or might be pregnant.

  • If they are nursing and haven't consulted their doctor.

  • If they are under the legal age for drinking.

  • If they have certain medical conditions or are taking certain medications that can interact with alcohol.

  • If they are recovering from an alcohol use disorder or unable to control the amount they drink.

Not all alcohol servings are the same. Below is an image provided by the CDC representing the most common alcoholic drinks and the recommended serving size that coincides with the daily amount.

Image provided from cdc.gov

The Key is Moderation

The big takeaway here is that it is safe to consume a moderate amount of alcohol. The risks increase if you binge or excessively drink heavily. Alcohol provides many benefits to your body, mind, and soul.

During this pandemic, it's understandable to enjoy a glass of your favorite alcoholic drink now that you understand how to enjoy it responsibly. Take that time to unwind, lift your spirits, and step away from stress. When it is safe to gather socially, we can enjoy alcohol in moderation with our friends and family again.

Works Cited

A;, H. (n.d.). Wine and cardiovascular health: A comprehensive review. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28993373/

Acetaldehyde. (2021, February 16). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetaldehyde

Alcohol and cancer risk fact sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet

BSc, A. (2018, October 29). Alcohol and health: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/alcohol-good-or-bad

Chan, A. (1986). RACIAL DIFFERENCES IN ALCOHOL SENSITIVITY. Alcohol and Alcoholism. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.alcalc.a044598

Facts about moderate drinking. (2020, December 29). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm

History of alcoholic drinks. (2021, February 15). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_alcoholic_drinks

Link, R. (2016, September 16). Can You Drink Alcohol on a Low-Carb Diet? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/alcohol-and-low-carb-diet

Polyphenol. (2021, January 16). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphenol

Rawat, J., Pinto, C., Dave, M., & Tandel, K. (2016, March 11). Neuropathology in neuropsychiatric Disorders secondary to alcohol misuse. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128002131000584

Rehm, J. (1970, January 01). The risks associated with alcohol use and alcoholism. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307043/

Smith, L. (2021, February 11). The link between alcohol + cancer (and how to lower your risk). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.healthination.com/health/substance-use/alcohol/alcohol-cancer-risk/

Snopek, L., Mlcek, J., Sochorova, L., Baron, M., Hlavacova, I., Jurikova, T., Kizek, R., Sedlackova, E., & Sochor, J. (2018). Contribution of Red Wine Consumption to Human Health Protection. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(7), 1684. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23071684

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