I love writing stories that please my friends and family. (My potential mother-in-law has been repeatedly referencing this article in relation to her regular cocktails.)
Originally published in the National Post April 8, 2011:
Last year, U.S. researchers published a study involving 1,824 people between the ages of 55 and 65, grouping those who enjoyed one or two drinks a day and those who completely avoided alcohol. When researchers checked on the subjects 20 years later, they found that abstainers had an increased mortality rate more than two times that of moderate drinkers.
More recently, scientists at the University of Calgary analyzed data on alcohol consumption and heart disease and determined that those who drink one to two glasses of alcohol per day are up to 25% less likely to develop heart disease.
Study after study has shown that moderate drinking is good for your health. But the question that remains is why. The perils of drink are well-known, but its positive attributes are difficult to pin down.
Scientists say that more research needs to be done to understand why alcohol may be beneficial in small doses. Most commonly, evidence shows that alcohol is associated with increased cardiovascular health.
The team at the University of Calgary, lead by Dr. William Ghali, found that moderate drinking led to higher levels of “good” cholesterol and a decrease of a chemical responsible for blood clotting.
And though there’s much to be said about the reservatrol in red wine, this study didn’t distinguish between Château Mouton-Rothschild or Labatt; “it does appear to be alcohol itself that is causing these favourable outcomes,” Ghali, a professor of medicine at the university, said.
However, we don’t know how exactly the alcohol molecule works its magic. “It’s not understood how it happens at a cellular level. If that was understood, there could be implications for developing new drugs; a new drug could be developed to mimic the alcohol without the social and other potential adverse health effects,” Ghali added.
There are many theories as to what alcohol does to merit this praise.
One is the suggestion that alcohol increases high-density lipoproteins in the body. Often referred to as HDL or “good” cholesterol, these lipoproteins scour your blood for excess cholesterol and take it to your liver where it’s broken down. (Excess low-density lipoproteins or “bad” cholesterol get deposited in the walls of blood vessels, narrowing them. Blocked blood vessels lead to coronary artery disease.)
Another theory is that alcohol is a blood thinner, working somewhat like aspirin as an anticoagulant. “We don’t understand how that happens,” Ghali says. But booze appears to decrease levels of fibrinogen, a protein in the body that helps the formation of blood clots. Blood clots can obstruct blood vessels, resulting in an elevated risk of heart attack or stroke.
Third, alcohol seems to have a positive effect on adiponectin, a hormone that regulates the metabolism of fats and sugars; it allows the body to absorb lipids and glucose more efficiently, Ghali says.
More speculative ideas exist, though. Stephen Braun, the award-winning author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, offers one: alcohol as a muscle relaxant. “The heart is a muscle and there are muscles around the blood vessels; so if you relax those muscles, you’re going to lower the blood pressure,” he says. “It’s plausible.”
How about alcohol as a mind relaxant or a stress reliever?
“You have to take into account the mind-body connection here,” he says. “It does help people relax in more of a mental way. If you are relaxing your mind and that could lower your cortisol levels; it could have other physiological effects that come with relaxation that are good for you.”
That being said, it still might be more beneficial to perform yoga than swig a bottle of beer. “Have a beer and do yoga and it’ll probably be better,” Braun says with a laugh.
Even better: have a beer, do yoga and invite some friends. People with more social connections are generally healthier and people tend to drink socially. So having a drink or two with friends is good for the soul and good for the body. The operative words are “a drink or two.”
Before we raise our glasses to good health, Braun advises caution.
Moderate drinking means no more than two drinks a day for women, three for a men; any more and you risk slipping down the other side of the slope, where alcohol turns from tonic to toxin. Unseemly hazards aside, such as drunk-dialing your ex, you risk mortal threats such as liver disease, cancer and alcoholism. About 10% of Canadians are dependent on alcohol at some time in their lives. Long-term heavy drinking can also cause arrhythmias, brain damage, diabetes and stomach ulcers. Alcohol is our drug of choice and we protect what we like; however, we can’t ignore its damage to society.
“In 2002, alcohol cost the Canadian society $7-billion in direct costs, mostly for enforcement and health,” says Gerald Thomas, senior research and policy analyst, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. “The two leading criminal charges are drinking and driving and assault (around 30% or 40% of assaults are alcohol-involved).”
He also warns that the health benefits of drinking are exaggerated. Early studies that showed increased mortality risk for abstainers often included recovering alcoholics, he says. And these abstainers tended to be unhealthy.
“If you don’t drink, you shouldn’t start drinking to get health benefits because alcohol is very addictive for a segment of the population,” Braun says. “But the message is, to the people who already drink, a) You’re not doing yourself any harm and b) You might actually be giving yourself some benefits.
“But if you do start seeing double and put a lamp shade on your head, you’re not drinking moderately.”