Is There Any Harm in Alcohol Abuse?
No one doubts that that alcohol abuse is bad for your health, but things aren’t so simple when it comes to more moderate intake.
What is “moderate consumption” of alcohol?
The problem is what is considered “moderate” varies dramatically from country to country. We first need to define the notion of “an alcoholic drink”. In the UK, for instance, a drink is 8 grams of pure alcohol, but it’s 20 in Japan and 14 in the US. 14 is the equivalent of 350 milliliters of beer (approximately one can) or 150 milliliters (1 glass) of wine or 45 milliliters (one shot) of vodka.
That’s why there are different opinions on when you should to stop drinking. Citizens of the UK believe 3-4 drinks (24-32 grams of alcohol) won’t do any substantial harm to men’s health, while 2-3 drinks (16-24 grams) is okay for women.
Men in Japan are typically recommended not to drink more than two glasses of sake a day (39.5 grams of alcohol) and there are no different recommendations for women. In the US, men are advised not to drink more than two drinks of a day (28 grams of alcohol) while women are told no more than one drink (14 grams). The differences between men and women are not only because women usually weigh less but also because of sexual differences in the metabolism of alcohol in their bodies.
Different understandings of “moderation” can lead to confusion when it comes to a global discussion on consumption, but generally, we almost always mean 10-30 grams of alcohol a day.
The type of alcohol doesn’t really matter, as there is no solid evidence as to which kind of alcohol has better or worse effects on the body (for instance, whether red wine actually has any advantage over any other kind of alcoholic drink).
Beneficial or harmful?
There is a definite lack of reliable scientific data in this field, so we’ll consider the information we do have. Numerous studies in various countries (1, 2, 3) have shown that people who have a moderate consumption of alcohol throughout their lives have slightly lower death rates than people who don’t drink at all.
A meta-analysis of 34 studies on this topic estimates that the lower death rate occurred in men and women who consumed six grams of pure alcohol a day (i.e. half of a standard American drink measurement).
However, such studies have strong opposition. Authors of several reviews of existing analyses (1, 2) claim that many works on this topic contain mistakes and, for instance, withdraw the results of people now marked as “sober” but who have had alcohol dependency in the past. Here, one can see that the alleged “healing” effect of moderate alcohol consumption literally vanishes.
In any case, it’s important not to claim there’s a sustainable cause-and-effect relationship there, as only a correlation exists. Many hundreds of factors can influence death rates, and even with a large number of participants it’s hard to account for everything in any study. The fact is that people who drink alcohol moderately don’t actually live longer merely thanks to alcohol. However, there are still some grounds for making this claim.
A large number of scientific studies show a relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and a decreased risk of developing various cardiovascular problems. Among them are ischemic heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease. Alcohol is associated with a lower death rate in people with increased blood pressure.
Some studies show that the risk of developing cholelithiasis is lower in both men and women who drink moderately compared to people who don’t drink at all. Quite convincing data exists that shows moderate consumption of alcohol is connected with a decreased risk of developing diabetes mellitus.
However, all these effects lose their positivity with an increase in the number of units of alcohol per day – usually 3-4 for men and 2-3 for women. That is, the more alcohol is consumed, the worse your health becomes, as the positive correlation is lost with increased alcohol consumption.
Various studies have shown graphs with a shape similar to the letter J: When consumption is moderate, the death rate goes a little downhill compared to the zero level of consumption, and when the dose is increased, it shoots up exponentially.
There are still many questions concerning moderate drinking, however. Even light consumption of alcohol is connected to an increased risk of certain types of cancer. This is especially true of breast cancer in females. According to one study, up to 8 percent of breast cancer may be connected to alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is also associated with a higher risk of developing head and neck tumors (especially when combined with smoking), hepatocellular carcinoma in people with hepatitis C, and colorectal cancer (although data about the latter is still controversial).
Pancreatic cancer is only connected to chronic alcohol abuse (starting from 57 drinks a week for a man) and the same is true for pancreatitis. The increased risk is also connected to severe alcohol abuse. However, even light consumption of alcohol can increase the risk of harming the pancreas.
To drink or not to drink?
Considering the above-mentioned factors, doctors around the world are unlikely to recommend using alcohol specifically for its “health benefits”. The official position of the World Health Organization is inconsistent as well: the European department of the WHO considers that there is no such thing as safe use of alcohol, yet one of the WHO reports says that there is a “low-level” risk from consuming 20 grams of pure alcohol a day five days a week. However, most doctors recommend that if you drink, you can continue to do so but as moderately as possible.
Many studies adhere to American norms of drinking, i.e. no more than two drinks per day (14 grams of pure alcohol, which corresponds to one beer can, one glass of wine or one shot of vodka) for men and no more than one for non-pregnant women.
Pregnant women should definitely refrain from drinking alcohol. Despite the fact that scientists have too little data to claim that small doses of alcohol can harm the fetus, they’ve been unable to define a harmless level of drinking. That’s why it’s much wiser not to play with fire and totally refrain from drinking during pregnancy.
In addition, anyone who’s ever suffered from alcoholic dependence or had cases of it in their family should also avoid it, even in moderate amounts, as well as those who have any damage to the liver or pancreatic diseases.