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Spirits - The Health Benefits of Alcohol

Moderate consumption of wine has been recognized for some time as healthful. Red wine in particular is widely associated with lowering the risk of heart attack and has other beneficial effects. But there are also numerous studies that show that spirits offer many of the same benefits.

Red wine studies frequently focus on the phenols that act as antioxidants, which promote cardiovascular health. But, as is becoming clear, the alcohol alone is responsible for much of the good to be had from moderate drinking.

One large scale British study reviewed the habits of 12,000 physicians aged 48-78. It concluded that overall mortality was significantly lower among those who consumed between 16-24 grams of alcohol per day.

Not surprisingly, as with anything, 'dosage' is key. Teetotalers had higher mortality rates than those who had one to two drinks per day. Those who drank in excess had higher mortality rates than either group.

The benefits ran across multiple groups. Men and women both in a variety of ethnic backgrounds and geographic locations all experienced the same positive results. That's particularly true in studies of coronary heart disease. Overall risk of CHD was reduced from 30-50% in groups that consumed moderate amounts of alcohol.

Some of the possible reasons were brought out by those studies. Moderate alcohol consumption increases HDL (the beneficial form of cholesterol) while it decreases thrombosis (blood clotting that can lead to increased chances of heart attack or stroke). It reduces artery spasms as a result of lowering stress. Modest drinking correlates strongly with a reduction in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Other studies showed other health benefits. According to the large-scale Nurses' Health Study gallstones were less likely to occur in moderate drinkers than non-drinkers. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes was also frequently found to be lower in the drinkers versus the teetotalers. Nearly 40% of moderate drinkers had a lower risk of CHD.

But, how much is moderate?

In most studies, a 'drink' is defined differently for different beverages - wine, spirits and more. And studies differ. In the case of spirits, it is generally 1 1/2 ounces. So two to three drinks per day is anywhere from 3 to 4.5 ounces. Since spirits have a higher alcohol concentration, many of the benefits are achieved at lower consumption, around 1-2 drinks per day for men, one for women. One drink equates to about 12-14 grams of alcohol.

The relationship between health habits in general and drinking has been studied extensively, too. Over 100 studies reviewed by the Harvard School of Public Health all pointed to similar conclusions. The studies took account of the possibility that those that do only moderate drinking may have generally better health habits. Even after accounting for differing levels of exercise, diet and many other potential 'confounders', as they're called, the beneficial effects of alcohol remained.

A few sample studies:

The Nurses' Health Study involved 85,709 female nurses aged 34-59 for 12 years. They saw a 40% reduction in risk of CHD. Results published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1988.

The Physicians' Health Study followed 22,071 male physicians aged 40-84 for 11 years. They saw a 30-35% reduced risk of angina and myocardial infarction, 20-30% reduced risk of cardiovascular death. Published in the Archive of Internal Medicine, 1997.

An American Cancer Society cohort reviewed 489,626 men and women aged 30-104 over a 9 year period. They enjoyed a 30-40% reduced risk of cardiovascular death. Results published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1997.

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