Scientists have been going back and forth about whether or not alcohol is healthy for you. Some studies suggest a little wine every day is a good thing, others say it has negative effects. Now, a new 40-year study, published online this week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, is lending strong support to the idea that wine is good for you – at least if you’re a guy. It adds to the mounting evidence that consistent but small levels of alcohol actually are healthier for you than no alcohol at all.
What’s the deal with alcohol anyway?
Scientists have been looking at the health effects of alcohol for a looooooong time. Despite the fact that heavy drinkers clearly are more prone to liver problems and other health issues, it seemed that alcohol consumption has all kinds of positive effects. It’s been linked to improved memory, reduced blood clots and blood vessel inflammation, higher “good” cholesterol, weight loss, increased estrogen levels, improved immune function and even reduced cancer risk. Wine, in particular, seems to be highly beneficial. But why would alcohol, wine or otherwise, be good for you?
Well, the first thing that all alcoholic beverages contains is, obviously, alcohol. Alcohol, all by itself, is linked to most of the benefits that are caused by consuming alcoholic beverages. The main reason the alcohol variety that we drink, ethanol, has such a profound effect is because it’s capable of sliding through the lipid membranes which make up our cells. Once inside, through mechanisms not entirely understood, it acts like anti-inflammatory cellular signals. Ethanol has also been shown to reduce platelet activity and related clotting mechanisms, thus reducing risk of stroke and other heart problems. Of course, its ability to enter cells and affect function is also what makes it dangerous – enough of it can disrupt cell function and lead to health problems, too.
But wine and some other alcoholic drinks go a step beyond just ethanol in being beneficial to cells. Wine, particularly red wine, is chock full of what are called phytochemicals such as flavonoids and resveratrol. These come from the grapes themselves, and are part of what colors the grape’s skin.
These compounds act as antioxidants, which means they react and bind free radicals – which are particles that have lost an electron, thus making them charged and highly reactive. When a free radical encounters another molecule in the cell, it steals an electron from it. This theft causes the other molecule to be unable to function normally – and if that molecule is a part of a protein or important cellular pathway, it can even completely disrupt the cell, and sometimes these free radicals even cause mutations in our DNA which lead to cancer. So antioxidants are key in staying healthy because by binding free radicals, they prevent them from causing cellular damage in the body.
What they did
The researchers from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands took 1,373 randomly chosen men aged 40-60 in 1960 and followed them until 2000. The men recorded what they drank, how much, what they ate, how much they weighed, and their overall health for as long as they lived.
The scientists then sat down with all that data to see whether there were any correlations between alcohol consumption, death and disease. By looking at different types of alcohol, the researchers hoped to see whether any positive or negative effects were specific to what kind of alcohol you drink.
They compared not only drinking different alcohols and life expectancy, they also took into account diet, weight and socio-econmic status – which alcohol nay-sayers say are the real cause of variation when positive effects of alcohol are found. Some claim that people who are higher in status drink more wine, for example, and have better access to health care, thus leading to ‘false’ links between wine and health, or that those who are lower class are more prone to poor diets and drink less wine, etc. So the scientists were very careful to exclude the differences in health caused by other, non-alcohol factors.
What they found
As time went on, men drank more. In 1960, only about 45% of the participants drank, but that proportion almost doubled to 86% by 2000. Those that drank wine particularly increase, skyrocketing from 2% to 44% during that period. Apparently, the older you get, the more you drink – just to let you know.
Overall, 1,130 of the 1,373 men died during the 40 year period. Alcohol has previously been linked to increased heart function and overall improved cardiovascular health, so the the researchers wanted to see if alcohol had an affect on deaths caused by poor heart health specifically. They broke down the deaths into those that were cerebrovascular, total cardiovascular (like coronary heart disease), and “all-cause” to compare alcohol consumption.
What they found was that drinking 20 g of wine a day (about half a glass) significantly reduced mortality by all three types of death. Drinking 20 g of any kind alcohol, in fact, significantly correlated to longer life – moderate drinkers lived about 2 years longer than their dry counterparts. These results held strong even when age, weight, diet and socioeconomic class were taken into account.
But the effects of wine far exceeded the effects of alcohol in general. Those men who drank only wine, and less than half a glass of it a day, lived about 2.5 years longer than those who drank beer and spirits and almost five years longer than those who drank no alcohol at all.
Drinking more than 20 g a day, however, slightly decreased life expectancy. So overdoing the alcohol did lead to trouble, which supports the other studies which have found alcohol to have negative effects. It really is about moderation and consistency when it comes to alcohol’s benefits – overdo it, and you’re only hurting yourself.
Go Ahead, You Can Start Wining
Basically, as long as you don’t abuse alcohol, it’s pretty good for you. Red wine especially contains lots of antioxidants and other components which are really good for your heart. So if you’ve ever felt conflicted because you fear having a drink is bad for you, just remember that more and more research supports that low to moderate drinking is completely healthy. And if you do want to have a glass of something with dinner, wine’s the way to go. A beer or a rum and coke simply won’t be as beneficial to you as a good glass of merlot.
But like anything else, drinking isn’t for everyone. There are certain groups of people who should avoid alcohol no matter what. Firstly, of course, are anyone who has had alcoholic issues in the past. Re-opening that door is never a good idea. Also, people who have high triglycerides (like those who are diabetic) should be wary – alcohol raises these levels. Alcohol also has been linked to breast cancer by raising estrogen levels, so if you’re at high risk for estrogen positive breast cancer you should probably steer clear. Also, for reasons still not entirely understood, people who suffer migraines tend to get headaches triggered by wine and other alcohols, so those who have migraines might not want to start drinking.
Of course, there may be other reasons not to drink alcohol, and you should talk to your doctor if you think it might be particularly bad for you. But, in general, alcohol isn’t nearly as bad for you as you might think. In fact, it’s probably good for you, though the scientific jury is still somewhat hung on the subject. What we do know is that at low levels, alcohol does have some pretty good health benefits, on top of the regular social ones. So you shouldn’t feel guilty about wining a little – just don’t overdo it.
Streppel, M., Ocke, M., Boshuizen, H., Kok, F., & Kromhout, D. (2009). Long-term wine consumption is related to cardiovascular mortality and life expectancy independently of moderate alcohol intake: the Zutphen Study Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 63 (7), 534-540 DOI: 10.1136/jech.2008.082198