Update on alcohol and health

Update on alcohol and health

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has provided some interesting insights into the effects of alcohol on health.

With so much scientific research going on these days it might be surprising to some that there is still debate about the role of alcohol in health. The reason is that the whole area is challenging to study. Where there is potential for harm it’s ethically difficult to conduct the sort of scientific studies that would provide definitive answers.

So, we are left with ‘observational’ studies which are slightly weaker in design and which have thrown up some interesting results. These studies show, very clearly, that high intakes of alcohol are detrimental to health. But at low-to-moderate intakes of alcohol the situation is different and this is where the controversy lies.

Alcohol is very active in the human body, affecting blood lipids, blood sugar, inflammation, blood pressure and the risk for cancer. Although some of these effects are detrimental, others are beneficial. In particular, low-to-moderate intakes of alcohol have been consistently associated with protection against heart disease, giving rise to engaging media stories such as ‘red wine is good for the heart.’

The latest study didn’t assess effects of alcohol on any particular disease, considering instead the effects on death from all causes – an overall perspective. It’s a massive meta-analysis, combining the results of 107 research studies with no less than 4.8 million participants, so the results provide a clear picture of the state of the science.

The remarkable finding of this study was the lack of any effect of low and moderate intakes of alcohol on all-cause mortality, the positive and negative health effects cancelling one another out. In women, risk only started to increase at intakes of 25-44g of alcohol per day i.e. two and a half to four and a half standard drinks per day. In males, risk started to increase at intakes 45-64g/day i.e. four and a half to six and a half standard drinks per day.

These intakes are higher than most guidelines from health authorities for the daily consumption of alcohol, reflecting the very conservative approach taken by the experts who put these recommendations together.

Health authorities view the subject of alcohol and health through a very biological lens, focusing on disease. No consideration is given to the conviviality that flows when family or friends gather around the table for an evening of food, wine and conversation. Social wellbeing is built into modern definitions of health but it somehow fails to be considered where alcohol is concerned.

Experts are so boring. 

Read the full study here