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Some experts say there’s no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to your health. Anchiy/Getty Images
  • According to a recent study by a group of scientists at Oxford University in England, there’s no safe dose for alcohol consumption.
  • Should everyone really completely give up drinking to stay healthy?
  • We asked experts for their take on an occasional drink.

Is alcohol good for you or bad? Does it depend on the quantity?

According to a recent study by a group of scientists at Oxford University in England, there’s no safe dose for alcohol consumption.

The observational study looked at data from more than 25,000 middle-aged adults. The study found that moderate consumption is more closely associated with adverse effects on the brain than was previously known. They found that alcohol was negatively associated with global brain gray matter volume. Also, individuals with comorbidities like high blood pressure and a high BMI, or those who binge drink, may be more susceptible to these adverse effects.

For decades, doctors have described moderate drinking — a maximum of one drink per day for women and two a day for men — as low risk and perhaps even good for health.

But that view appears to be shifting. Last year, an expert advisory committee for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that the daily limit be lowered to one drink for men. One drink is said to be equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Experts are mixed on the benefits of alcohol, but they are clear on the harm of too much drinking. Binge drinking can increase the risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Experts also agree that alcohol is a proven cause of several kinds of cancer, including breast and liver cancer.

“Alcohol is associated with dementia. Even moderate intake can affect brain dementia,” said Kenechukwu Mazue, a nuclear cardiology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “There’s really no safe level.”

While Mazue has seen studies that suggest that wine may have health benefits, he counsels patients to stay within limits set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“For those who don’t drink, I don’t ask them to start” because of the potential for alcohol dependency.

Shivendra Shukla, PhD, the Margaret Proctor Mulligan Professor of medical pharmacology and physiology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, warns even a small amount of alcohol can be damaging.

Shukla has researched binge drinking and chronic drinking over the last 25 years.

“Alcoholic consumption in any amount is bad,” Shukla said. Alcohol has a domino effect. Alcohol is a very mysterious chemical. Once in the body, it has multiple pathways by which it can exert damaging effects. It’s just like a cluster bomb. The consequences can be very injurious.”

Dr. Jeanette Tetrault, a professor of medicine and addiction specialist at the Yale School of Medicine, takes a more measured view of alcohol consumption.

“We know that there are negative health effects related to alcohol consumption,” she said. “We know there are situations where any drinking can have negative health effects, including for populations such as pregnant women, adolescents. Our messaging as providers needs to be to look at individual circumstances and assess the risk and health effects of individuals. Abstinence-only does not work. We’ve seen public health campaigns like that fail in the past.”

A message that alcohol is bad and should be avoided at all costs could lead to the loss of a clinical relationship between providers and patients, she said.

Dr. Patricia Molina, professor and head of the Department of Physiology at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, shares a similar view. Yes, alcohol use in certain populations — such as those with chronic diseases — should be discouraged, said Molina, a physician and past president of the American Physiological Society.

“The message should be alcohol consumption in moderation,” said Molina. “The pattern of consumption can have a significant impact on health. Talk with a physician if you have a chronic disease.”