Recently, a 1WD reader wrote in to ask me what I thought about the recent spate of news indicating that alcohol is bad for your health. Here’s his initial correspondence, which he gave me permission to share with you all:
I was reading a few articles in Decanter for class when I came across one (admittedly attention-grabbing) article. The UK’s equivalent of the Surgeon General has apparently decided there’s “no safe level of drinking”. She has also cut the guideline maximum for men weekly to 14 units (a unit is approximately 2.5 US fluid ounces of 13% abv wine). Here is the article: http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/uk-alcohol-guidelines-no-safe-drinking-level-as-daily-limit-cut-287142/.
To put it mildly, I think this is complete and utter bullshit. It’s not that I think moderate alcohol consumption is bad–far from it. Indeed, I think there are people who should try to avoid alcohol completely, including those who have no control over their own drinking whatsoever. However, from what I’ve read over the years, there is a “J-shaped curve” associated with various diseases (particularly coronary-related) and alcohol consumption. A quick internet search led me to this for cardiovascular health: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/562474_2, and WineAnorak had this for other benefits: http://www.wineanorak.com/healother.htm.
While there are health risks associated with alcohol use, as well, including oesophageal cancers, there are health risks associated with nearly everything. Taking a stroll after work is healthy, for example, but there’s a risk I could get hit by a car, or get hypothermia or heat stroke (depending on the weather), or bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile virus. Even hiding at home trying to avoid all risks of mortality doesn’t rule out dying of various things, such as unexpected meteor impact, heart attack from a combination of lack of exercise and stress from perceived impending doom, or starvation since I’d run out of groceries eventually if I refuse to leave the house. Paranoia to that extent is almost reason to cause someone to drink.
Sorry about that rant. I read that article and it riled me up; I felt it would be something I’d love to hear your opinion and commentary on, as well.
In a follow-up correspondence, he had this to add about the subject:
I read another two studies about raised breast cancer risks from light-to-moderate alcohol usage as compared to abstinence this last week. One was a study of about 48000 people from the 1980s to 2010. The other was a meta-study. Both found an approximately 10% risk of breast cancer in abstainers, and an approximately 12.5% risk in light-to-moderate drinkers. I didn’t see anything about mortality, metastasizing, or recurrence. It didn’t seem that other risk factors besides smoking were necessarily controlled for. I’ll have to use some Google-fu to find them again, but though neither was precisely friendly towards alcohol, what I understood from their conclusions was essentially, “There’s a slightly elevated risk of breast cancer from drinking alcohol. It’s not much to worry about, but if you are paranoid, you can stop drinking.”
Now, bearing in mind that, to the best of my knowledge, neither he nor I are medical professionals, here’s my take on all of this…
Alcohol is almost certainly not good for you.
Seriously, it’s not. You don’t increase your life span by drinking the way that you might from eating blueberries and carrots. But that doesn’t mean that it is going to kill you, either.
From what I’ve been able to discern in following developments on this topic for years, alcohol probably has some minor health benefits when consumed in moderation, but it comes with a host of potential health risks (cancers, digestive issues, liver problems, etc.), almost all of which can be fatal, and almost all of which are associated with consuming it in excess.
However, I am personally not afraid of consuming alcohol. Unlike smoking, which by most measures is likely to kill you if you use it as directed, just about every study on alcohol performed to date suggests that moderate, responsible consumption of alcohol is unlikely to kill you dead.
None of the recent news regarding alcohol health risks has me scrambling to dump all of my wine samples down the drain. I still abstain from drinking any alcohol at least two nights per week, and have been thinking about increasing that, only because I want to have a balanced life and reduce my risk of the negative health-related potential side effects of drinking; none of that is being done because I think that alcohol is anywhere close to ruining my health or life, however.
From what I have been able to discern, from a health perspective I need to be much more worried about, say, making sure my radon fan is working properly than whether or not having a couple of glasses a wine on most nights is going to put me into the grave. If I didn’t exercise regularly, didn’t eat as healthily as time/money/opportunity allows, and was a smoker, cutting back moderate drinking levels would be the last thing on my list of potentially life-saving improvements.
We take a risk of dying whenever we walk out of the door and drive in our cars. That doesn’t stop us (or all of the other idiots behind the wheel) from driving. You take a risk when you drink booze, but the binge drinking epidemic in the UK notwithstanding, I think it’s a disservice to the public at large to proclaim that risk to be on par with pest poisons, or even hydrogenated oils.
I’ll still be drinking in moderation, in full sight of my daughter, who I hope will see her old man live a long, happy life, and one in which responsible alcohol consumption has a routine place.
Copyright © 2015. Originally at Alcohol Probably Isn’t Good For You (But Don’t Start Crying Just Yet)
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