Sophisticated oenophiles and down in the gutter alcoholics
alike tout the health benefits of alcohol. Indeed there is strong evidence that
regular, light to moderate alcohol intake reduces the risk of heart disease.
Death rates from heart attacks are 30-50% lower in low to moderate alcohol
However, when it comes to cancer, the World Health
Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concludes in its
2014 World Cancer Report that no amount of alcohol is safe. Alcohol contains at
least 15 carcinogenic compounds, and has been causally related to several types
of cancer. The most convincing evidence of a relationship between alcohol
consumption and cancer exists for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus,
colon and liver. In all of these instances, the direct contact of alcohol with
the affected organ is believed to be responsible.
However, recent studies have also linked alcohol consumption
to pancreatic cancer and female breast cancer. In these cases, the mechanism by
which alcohol promotes these cancers is less well understood.
But surely, light drinking does not cause or contribute to
cancer? Apparently, it does. According to an analysis of 222 studies that
followed 92,000 drinkers and 60,000 non-drinkers with cancer, light drinking
increased the risk of mouth and throat cancer, esophageal cancer and breast
cancer. This analysis concluded that just in 2004 worldwide, light drinking
accounted for 5,000 deaths from mouth and throat cancer, 24,000 from esophageal
cancer and 5,000 from breast cancer.
However, in this analysis, alcohol use was self-reported. In
such studies, respondents often understate their actual alcohol consumption.
This can result in finding associations between cancers and light drinking,
when in reality, alcohol intake is much higher.
In fact, alcohol in only marginally greater amounts than
what is considered beneficial for the heart is associated with a sharp increase
in the risk of many other types of heart disease, including arrhythmias,
cardiomyopathy and stroke. Alcoholism is also associated with increased blood
pressure and diabetes. Keep in mind that no amount of alcohol is safe during
So what is the right amount?
Analysis of the multiple studies evaluating the beneficial and harmful
effects of alcohol indicates that 14 g of alcohol for women and 28 g for men on
a daily basis is considered moderate. For women this is equal to one 5 oz glass
of wine, one shot (1 oz) of most hard liquor drinks and one 12 oz beer. For
men, it is twice these amounts. Furthermore, the beneficial effect of alcohol
appears to be linked to a consistent drinking pattern of daily, low to moderate
level alcohol use, usually before or with the evening meal, and without “binge”
The heart benefits of alcohol arise from several sources.
Alcohol itself is a vaso-relaxant, increasing the elasticity of your arteries
and lowering blood pressure. Alcohol makes the platelets less sticky, reducing
the risk of blood clots. Alcohol raises HDL-C (good cholesterol), which helps
remove cholesterol from plaques. Alcohol also contains antioxidant polyphenols,
which reduce the incorporation of LDL (bad cholesterol) particles into arterial
While the health benefits have been shown for all types of
alcohol, red wine in particular appears to offer unique benefits. It is high in
the content of resveratrol and procyanidins, both being types of polyphenol
antioxidants associated with longevity and a markedly reduced risk of CHD. Red
wine has ten times the polyphenol content of white wine. Red wines with the
deepest, darkest colors have the highest content of the healthy polyphenols, so
look for wines from the class of Clarets, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Pinot
Victor Hugo said, “God made only water, but man made wine.”
Perhaps, we should heed a message this quote was not intended to convey. Any
level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing alcohol-related
cancers, but that risk rises in accordance with the level of consumption.
Conversely, low levels of regular alcohol consumption are beneficial to the
heart and circulatory system. Enjoy what God has provided without limits, and
enjoy what man has made from it sparingly.
To learn more about prevention, treatment and reversal of heart
disease, get the book Don’t Let Your
Heart Attack!, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.