Centuries old health claims once named vodka the “elixir of life”, but current health studies indicate that this may be a bit of a stretch. Alcohol may play some role in aiding heart health and reducing diabetes risk, but even in those cases the studies aren’t calling for an evening of vodka shots. Rather, when it comes to overall health, the value of alcohol tends to slant to favor wine. And like almost every other piece of medical advice, any proven relationship between alcohol and health depends on a relationship of moderation.
One reason that people tend to think that wine in particular is good for them is due to limited studies in animals showing the benefits of the antioxidant resveratrol. However, as with many antioxidants, the amount of wine you would have to consume in order to see any beneficial effect from resveratrol is so great as to cancel out any possible benefits.
In moderation, alcohol consumption may improve your levels of good cholesterol and also reduce inflammation. Both of these factors can reduce the likelihood a heart attack or stroke. Alcohol is also an anticoagulant, a beneficial feature if you are at risk of blood clots, but potentially dangerous in anyone on blood thinners.
Unfortunately, while moderate alcohol use has beneficial effects on the heart, overuse, as with alcoholics can also cause heart disease, particularly cardiomyopathy and arrhythmias. Cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes an enlarged heart with weakened muscles, is common in heavy drinkers, while arrhythmias primarily occur in binge drinkers. Binge drinkers, because they don’t necessarily drink every day, may not think of themselves as alcoholics and therefore not think they are at risk for heart problems. It’s important to recognize that binge drinking can be just as dangerous as more traditional alcoholic behavior.
No matter the physical benefits of alcohol, it’s also important to weigh the emotional and relational impact of using this substance. For those who struggle with moderation, overuse of alcohol can cause violent behavior and poor decision-making. Alcoholism also runs in families, so it’s important for those whose parents abused alcohol to approach with caution as use may quickly spiral out of control, recreating cycles of trauma.
Other people who should avoid alcohol include those on most medications – medication rarely mixes well with alcohol, those with liver or pancreatic problems, or anyone who has had a hemorrhagic stroke in the past, as the anticoagulant properties of alcohol can increase the risk that you will suffer another one. Anyone who is pregnant or trying to become pregnant should also avoid alcohol as consuming a lot of alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Breastfeeding women may consume alcohol in moderation and should do so several hours before nursing or pumping so that the alcohol has time to clear their system.
Currently, there is no singular conclusion about the health effects of alcohol as they vary widely by individual and in terms of quantity consumed. Always consult a doctor if you are concerned about your alcohol use or are unsure whether your medication can be mixed with alcohol. When in doubt, it is always best to abstain.