I am often asked what to make of the widely reported health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Many new branches of research have increasingly lifted these health advantages above the statistical noise of earlier studies about the dangers of alcohol.
Although individual studies may have critics, the overwhelming body of evidence seems clear. Those who consume moderate amounts of alcohol probably reap certain cardiovascular health benefits. Some research also makes a strong case for increased benefits for older drinkers, for whom heart disease poses a greater risk to health.
Moderation is generally defined as two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. It should be noted, however, that volume is not the only factor in determining the health benefits. The rate at which the alcohol is consumed and food intake along with the alcohol are two notable variables in many of the studies.
Like straight alcohol itself, these reports are hard for me to swallow. I have worked both as a pastoral counselor for families, most of which were dealing with addiction related problems, and with adult addicts as outpatient-services director in a hospital. My history with lives devastated by alcohol makes it difficult to even entertain the thought that anything good can come of something so bad.
Another problem is that I am not a nutritionist, scientist, research statistician or physician. When it comes to filtering through piles of articles and papers, I am just as vulnerable to the “spin doctors” as the next person.
Boiling down much data into digestible amounts always creates the danger of selective reductionism, but it is necessary to at least catch some common threads of the research. I am grateful to Registered Dietician Holly McCord at Prevention magazine for her published synopsis of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.
Almost all the major health benefits revolve around cardiovascular concerns. Moderate use of alcohol:
–Reduces blood vessel inflammation.
–Helps prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
–Leads to increases in the HDL (good) cholesterol.
–Helps in the prevention of blood platelet clotting.
–Is implicated in the healthy process of blood vessel dilation.
Media coverage of this issue tends to focus the benefits rather than the costs of alcohol use. On the surface, these facts seem tantalizing to our culture of excess. A person might develop the notion that he can eat a whole bowl of chips as long as he washes them down with a six-pack of his favorite brand of anti-cholesterol elixir. This is an enticing notion, but deathly wrong.
Why? Although the health benefits seem to be real, they are not staggering. The cost vs. benefit equation of alcohol consumption must account for people’s propensity to punish their bodies. Negative factors associated with alcohol—such as liver damage, nerve cell deterioration, increased risk of accidents and the danger of addiction—weigh against any health advantage.
Alcohol is not a quick fix to bad health habits, and it certainly should not be considered a prescription for high cholesterol or coronary disease. Imagine taking a pill that would slightly reduce symptoms of an ailment if the warning label read, “This medication is the third leading cause of preventable death in the nation.” A person who does not currently drink alcohol would be unwise to start because of health concerns.
Healthy options abound that can lead to longer and happier lives. Moderate exercise increases good cholesterol as well as alcohol does. The much-touted baby aspirin regimen produces the same anti-clotting action. Fruits and vegetables are good alternatives to high fat foods.
Despite my own spin on this issue, I am persuaded that many drinkers of alcohol lead happy and healthier lives because of their drinking. My hat is off to them; I even lift my glass to them. Yet I face the cold reality that many will twist the research to view alcohol as a shortcut to health. For all of its benefits, alcohol cannot wash away the sin of our excesses.
Perhaps a bottle of spirits does not deserve a “skull and cross bones,” but neither should there be a “happy face.” May we have the wisdom to draw the right picture and conclusions.
Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.