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Is any amount of alcohol good for your health?

People have been enjoying alcohol for centuries and across many different cultures. Alcohol is associated with many different social functions from a simple family dinner to marriages, births and deaths. When consumed in low to moderate amounts, alcohol promotes social interactions between friends and family, which is important for our overall well being. However heavy alcohol use has a significant impact not only at an individual health level - causing diseases including liver cirrhosis, and increasing risk of some cancers and cardiovascular disease - but also at a social level, causing alcohol dependence, traffic accidents and fuelling violence. So is consuming any alcohol good for your health and are some forms of alcohol like wine better than spirits?

Alcohol is a psychoactive substance - it affects your brain, initially causing feelings of relaxation by suppressing the parts of your brain causing inhibition and increases the level of dopamine that makes us feel good. Alcohol also slows down our thinking and impairs brain functions like judgement and coordination and makes us feel sluggish. The effects of alcohol varies widely amongst different individuals. It depends on blood alcohol concentration which is determined by how quickly the alcohol is absorbed, distributed, metabolised and excreted. All these processes are influenced by different environmental and genetic factors. For example how quickly we drink, what kind of alcoholic drink and if we have eaten any food whilst drinking. As we get older, our liver also has reduced capacity to metabolise alcohol and therefore we get drunk more easily and get worse hangovers from alcohol and the toxic byproduct called acetaldehyde causing toxic effects in our brains. Alcohol close to bedtime also causes poor sleep, which is important for preventing diseases like Alzheimer's disease and your overall life expectancy.

Heavy alcohol consumption definitely has negative health impacts due to its toxicity (ethanol - which is the form of alcohol we consume - is classed as a toxin) and is linked to over 3 million deaths per year worldwide.  Many medical studies show that when we consume in excess of the  recommended 14 units of alcohol per week, the risk of various diseases increases. However, the relationship between overall health and low-to-moderate alcohol consumption is less straightforward. So is any amount of drinking alcohol good for your health? 

Many studies have concluded that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption may actually reduce the risk of chronic diseases. However when we look more closely it becomes apparent that some  of these studies were poorly designed and the relationship is actually too complex to come to definite conclusions.

A possible explanation for the positive health associations of drinking alcohol come from the health benefits of social and psychological benefits - outweighing the harmful physical effects of alcohol. 

Are different forms of alcohol better than others? Fermented forms of alcohol like wine and beer are healthier than distilled forms like vodka or whisky as they contain some protective plant compounds like resveratrol quercetin and anthocyanins, however different studies are mixed on these health benefits.

So what can we conclude from this? The relationship between our health and alcohol consumption is complex, especially at low levels. Not drinking any alcohol has the lowest risk for negative physical effects due to toxicity of ethanol. However, at low levels, when toxicity is still relatively low, the benefits one gains due to making individuals connect more on a social level and feel less lonely, outweigh this.

Positive social interaction is known to decrease the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and depression. As consumption increases beyond the recommended 14 units per week, the health risk increases exponentially, including  risk of heart attacks, stroke, reduced bone density; various cancers including liver, mouth, breast and colorectal, and poor immune function. Alcohol consumption in pregnant mothers may cause foetal alcohol syndrome and pre-term complications - no amount of alcohol is safe for consumption when pregnant. Excess alcohol consumption also has significant social and economic consequences and may harm an individual’s friends, family and even strangers - road traffic accidents, violence, injuries, suicide.

In summary, if you do not drink alcohol, do not start. If you drink low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol on occasion - for example when socialising preferably with a meal and not too close to bed time - the positive health benefits of socialising likely outweigh the risk of alcohol consumption. Excessive amounts above the recommended 14 units of alcohol per week are undoubtedly bad for your health.

 If you would like have a personalised review of your lifestyle and to test your personal risk factors for developing chronic diseases of ageing, find out more about the Longevity Annual health check and download the longevity doctor guide to healthy living.


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