It was news greeted nationwide with a chorus of ‘I’ll drink to that!’… a scientific report last week suggesting that light-to-moderate boozing slashes the risk of an early death by a fifth.
It followed dozens of other studies that seemed to suggest drinking a moderate amount of alcohol (roughly 14 units a week for men and women) could protect you from various diseases, and even extend your life. Researchers from around the globe have linked moderate consumption to preventing the common cold, improving your sex life, and even reducing the risk of developing gallstones.
But hang on, don’t reach for another bottle just yet.
Didn’t the Chief Medical Officer for England, no less, recently advise us that there is no safe drinking level ‘because alcohol is toxic to the liver and other organs in the body’? In fact, Dame Sally Davies went as far as to say women should consider their risk of breast cancer every time they reach for a glass of wine – and advised the public to swap their Friday night tipple for a cup of tea.
So have the dangers been exaggerated for the sake of getting the message across? Can alcohol actually be good for you?
Confused? You’re not alone, so we asked the experts for the truth about drinking and how it may affect crucial aspects of your health…
The Mixed Messages
‘The long-term effects of low alcohol consumption are complex and difficult to investigate – no wonder people might be confused,’ says Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University.
And Mr John Scurr, a leading consultant vascular surgeon at the Lister Hospital, Chelsea, agrees we’re getting mixed messages when it comes to the link between alcohol and health.
‘On the one hand, the Department of Health is taking a very firm line, saying alcohol is never safe. On the other, scientific studies keep showing alcohol can be beneficial in moderation. Yes, some people drink to excess and become addicted, but to say drinking is always wrong is simply misleading.’
Last year, the Department of Health revised its drinking guidelines, stating that men should drink no more than 14 units per week (down from 21) bringing them in line with the level for women.
It’s widely accepted that heavy drinking is linked to a host of health issues including cancer, poor mental health, liver disease and premature death. But what effect is your glass of wine with dinner having on your health?
Too much alcohol can lead to a range of liver complaints, including fatty liver disease, hepatitis and other health problems.
But what is ‘too much’? Professor Rajiv Jalan, professor of hepatology at University College London, says healthy people do not need to abstain. ‘From the liver’s point of view, it is not necessary to avoid alcohol completely. It’s an organ designed to cope with a certain volume of toxins in the blood.
‘Alcohol is not beneficial to the liver, but it may not be harmful to it either – if you stick to one or two units at a time and don’t exceed the safe drinking guidelines.’ Indeed, ‘drinking small amounts, preferably during meals, appears to be the right way to drink alcohol,’ concluded one Italian study.
Older people, who may have built up tolerance to alcohol over the years, are actually more at risk of liver disease, says Professor Jalan. ‘The liver ages just like other organs. Over time, it renews itself more slowly and is damaged by alcohol more quickly. My advice to people past retirement age is to be careful because less alcohol will now cause more damage.’
Older people are also more likely to be taking prescription drugs which are metabolised in the liver. Alcohol can alter this metabolism and make it less effective. For example, drinking alcohol can inhibit the action of warfarin, used to thin the blood, and so increase the risk of blood clots and stroke.’
Drinking can cause blood sugar to rise because alcohol contains a huge amount of calories – a pint of lager can be equivalent to a slice of pizza, according to the charity Drinkaware.
Obesity is, of course, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Drinking too much can also reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that regulates the levels of sugar in the blood, making diabetes more likely.
But moderate drinking may actually help to protect against type 2.
Healthy adults who drank three units of alcohol a day lowered their risk of getting type 2 diabetes by up to 40 per cent for women and 13 per cent for men, according to a review of 15 previous studies published in journal Diabetes Care.
In fact, non-drinkers actually had the same risk of developing the disease as heavy drinkers, the researchers discovered.
‘It’s a very confusing picture when it comes to the link between alcohol consumption and type 2 diabetes,’ says writer and broadcaster Dr Michael Mosley, whose blood sugar levels were ‘in the diabetic range’ five years ago before he lost 22lb by changing his diet and lifestyle.
‘On the one hand, we’re told there’s no safe limit. On the other, studies do seem to suggest alcohol can be helpful. In particular, red wine in moderation has been shown to offer the greatest benefits – more than white wine and abstinence.’
Mosley, who published his book The Blood Sugar Diet based on his own experience, says he now drinks up to two glasses of red wine with a meal five nights a week.
‘I’m on the side of people who believe that red wine in moderation is pretty good for you.’
‘Multiple studies have suggested alcohol may protect against heart disease because it helps raise levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and prevents furring of the arteries,’ says Mr Scurr.
A study published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, involving nearly two million people found that drinking in moderation – no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for women and 21 for men – protected the heart compared with not drinking.
In fact, moderate drinkers were less likely to have problems such as angina, heart attack, stroke and aortic aneurysm than non-drinkers. Heavy drinking had the opposite effect and increased the risk of all these things.
‘A lot of my patients with vascular problems drink regular small amounts of alcohol to help alleviate their symptoms, and we encourage this,’ says Mr Scurr.
‘Alcohol causes vasodilation [dilation of the blood vessels] which brings down blood pressure and improves circulation.’
Professor Martin Cowie, a consultant cardiologist at Imperial College, London, says he never tells his middle-aged patients who drink moderately to give up alcohol.
‘Research shows moderate amounts of alcohol can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attacks. It makes the blood less sticky, a bit like aspirin, which reduces the risk of strokes.’
Even moderate drinking – one glass of wine a day – can increase the risk of breast cancer by five per cent for pre-menopausal women and nine per cent for post-menopausal women, while heavy drinkers can increase their risk by up to 50 per cent.
That was the verdict of a recent review of evidence published by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. ‘Findings suggest there is no level of alcohol that is completely safe in terms of breast cancer,’ says Anne McTiernan, one of the report’s lead authors.
This is because alcohol may damage DNA in cells, allowing cancers to develop, and can also increase the levels of certain hormones including oestrogen which can contribute to the development of hormone-sensitive breast cancer.
But Jack Cuzick, Professor of Epidemiology at Queen Mary, University of London and head of the Centre for Cancer Prevention, argues the risk is overstated.
‘If you drink one drink per day, you increase your absolute risk by about one per cent. If you drink four units a day, you increase your risk by four per cent. But this is actually pretty small compared to all the other risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of you developing breast cancer.
‘I don’t think there is evidence to show that women shouldn’t drink at all because they might get breast cancer. Of course, if you drink more than two alcoholic drinks each day, without breaks, there is evidence that this is harmful to health, but I think a distinction needs to be made.’
In fact, drinking alcohol in moderation may actually help women with the disease live longer, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Women who drank up to six drinks per week before their diagnosis reduced their risk of dying from breast cancer by 15 per cent compared to those who abstained.
A recent study from the University of San Diego concluded that moderate to heavy drinkers (more than three drinks a day for women and four drinks a day for men) were actually helping to stave off dementia in old age.
‘The study is unique as we considered men and women’s cognitive health at a late age and found that alcohol consumption is not only associated with reduced mortality, but with greater chances of remaining cognitively healthy into older age,’ said lead author Dr Linda McEvoy.
Does a daily drink or two help you live longer? Yes, according to that study published last week by the American College of Cardiology.
Adults who had more than three drinks a week but less than 14 (seven for women) slashed their risk of early death from all causes by 25 per cent for women drinkers and 13 per cent for male drinkers. But beware: The results were reversed if people drank heavily, with big boozers 25 per cent more likely to die early.