Can Small Amounts Of Alcohol Be Healthy?

We all know that drinking too much alcohol can be bad for our health. But what about drinking in moderation?

You may have heard the common suggestion that “a daily glass of red wine is good for your heart!”

Is there any truth to this claim?

The J-Shaped Curve

In epidemiological studies, the relationship between alcohol consumption and heart health has been described and graphed in what’s known as a “J-shaped curve.”

This means there is a small increase in apparent risk at zero consumption, a slight dip in apparent risk with light or moderate consumption, and a sharp increase in risk with heavy consumption.

This seems to suggest that having one or two drinks on occasion may be better for your health than not drinking at all.

Potential Health Benefits Of Light Drinking

There are a few explanations for why light drinking might be associated with improved health and lower rates of heart disease:

  • Alcohol has a positive effect on HDL cholesterol (the “good” type of cholesterol).
  • It also influences platelet function, which can help prevent the formation of arterial blood clots, a big risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.
  • People who drink moderate amounts of alcohol also tend to be more physically and socially active than people who don’t drink at all, which can further reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Drinking alcohol can stimulate urination, which might help prevent the development of kidney stones.
  • Moderate alcohol use may also improve insulin sensitivity, which can help keep blood sugar levels in check and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidants that can help protect against cell damage and inflammation.

However, there are other explanations for the J-shaped curve and the apparent benefits of light drinking compared to not drinking:

Non-Drinkers and Never-Drinkers

“How many alcoholic beverages do you have in a typical week?”

If we look at the people who get grouped into the “zero consumption” category in these epidemiological studies, we may find another explanation for the J-shaped curve. This group includes:

  • People who are teetotalers (they don’t drink at all and never have).
  • People who are ex-drinkers or recovering alcoholics.
  • People with medical conditions or medications that prevent them from drinking.

All these people get grouped together into the “non-drinking” category, even though they’re very different groups with different health profiles.

For example, for people who formerly drank heavily and then stopped, the damage to their bodies may have already been done. So, even though they’re no longer drinking, their risk of developing heart disease and other illnesses may still be high.

When studies control for these and other factors, the apparent benefits of moderate alcohol consumption seem to disappear.

There Is No “Healthy” Amount Of Alcohol

If you choose to drink alcohol, light amounts of alcohol probably won’t do you much harm, especially when compared to heavier amounts of drinking.

The current Dietary Guidelines For Americans recommend no more than two alcoholic drinks in a single day for men and not more than one for women.

However, it’s also noted that even small amounts of alcohol underneath this limitation can negatively impact your health and increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.

If you are not currently an alcohol consumer, there is no proven benefit to starting, and there are many potential risks.

The apparent benefits of moderate drinking can always be found in healthier ways:

  • You can improve your cholesterol by eating a healthier diet.
  • You can be physically and socially active without involving alcohol.
  • You can reduce your risk for kidney stones by drinking green tea or simply staying hydrated with water.
  • You can improve your insulin sensitivity by exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet.
  • Instead of red wine, you can get even more antioxidant benefits from grape juice or whole grapes.

Although light drinking may not be significantly harmful, the latest and greatest clinical research suggests that there are no safe amounts of alcohol, and no proven health benefits to alcohol consumption, even in small amounts.