Is a glass of red wine every night really beneficial for your health?
Maybe. Maybe not.
In the ever-raging debate over alcohol consumption, many experts cite the supposed benefits moderate drinking can have on cardiovascular health.
Tim Stockwell, PhD, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, in Canada, used to be one of those experts.
Many years ago he wrote a commentary in which he suggested it would be ridiculous to doubt that alcohol in moderation was cardioprotective.
Now, however, Stockwell considers his prior assertions embarrassing and is unconvinced that alcohol is beneficial to cardiovascular health.
“I’m skeptical as to whether there are any benefits,” Stockwell told Healthline. “I’m now not at all sure there is any cardioprotection, so I believe such advice would be potentially dangerous.”
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and two for men.
In the United States, a standard drink is considered to contain 14 grams of ethanol, the amount found in 12 ounces of 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer, or 5 ounces of 12 percent ABV wine.
Short-term and long-term risk
A study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that there was an immediate cardiovascular risk after drinking, but researchers noted moderate consumption may not have a long-term risk.
“There appears to be a consistent finding of an immediately higher risk of heart attacks and strokes following any alcohol consumption, but by 24 hours only heavy alcohol intake conferred a continued heightened risk,” Elizabeth Mostofsky, ScD, instructor at Harvard, and lead researcher of the study, told Healthline.
“In other words, heavy drinking increases risk both in the short term and the long term, but drinking smaller amounts has different effects in the subsequent hours than it does in the subsequent days and weeks. It seems possible that the transiently higher cardiovascular risk in the hours after drinking small amounts of alcohol may be outweighed by the longer-term health benefits or regular drinking,” she said.
George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says there have been studies that suggest a potential health benefit to alcohol in moderate amounts.
“Animal and human laboratory studies suggest that alcohol increases HDL [“good” cholesterol], lowers LDL [“bad” cholesterol], decreases blood pressure, decreases inflammation, decreases atherosclerosis, decreases diabetic vasculopathy [disease of blood vessels], and increases protective signaling against I/R induced tissue damage [involved in ischemic stroke], among others,” Koob told Healthline.
However, Koob suggests that the possible health benefits of alcohol could be obtained through other means.
“Many of the potential benefits of alcohol can be achieved through a healthy diet and exercise. And low-risk drinking doesn’t mean no-risk drinking. So it’s really a personal choice,” he said.
As for the red wine, Stockwell says there is no known health benefit to having a glass every night.
“Wine drinkers sometimes look better than other people in these kinds of studies, but that appears most likely to be due to a range of confounders,” he told Healthline. “People who like wine tend to have a whole host of other lifestyle characteristics compared with those who drink beer, for example, which generally mean they have more protective factors unrelated to their drinking, e.g., being relatively wealthy.”
So, what should you do?
So where does this leave people unsure about whether or not alcohol is good for them in moderate amounts?
According to Koob, one should consider whether the benefits of drinking outweigh the risks. Are they taking medications that interact with alcohol? Are they pregnant, planning to be pregnant, or breastfeeding? Is there is a history of alcohol dependence in the family? Are they able to keep their drinking within the low-risk guidelines?
“It is important to consider carefully any risks, if possible, in concert with your physician, when deciding whether or not to consume alcohol,” he said.
Koob notes that a person may choose to drink in moderation for a social benefit. However, there are no definitive answers regarding possible health benefits of moderate consumption.
For those unsure if they should introduce alcohol into their diet, the American Dietary Guidelines do not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking.
As with many matters relating to health, the risks and benefits of alcohol are largely dependent on the individual and as such it is hard for experts to make a broad recommendation.
“The blanket statement I’m comfortable with is that alcohol presents a risk to the health of everyone who drinks it, but in proportion to how much they drink, and starting at a very low level,” Stockwell said. “Enjoy moderate drinking if you are a moderate drinker, but don’t kid yourself it’s doing any good healthwise. Be aware of the risks and try to limit the number of days you drink and stick within the drinking guidelines.”