That Glass of Wine Isn’t So Good for You After All

The party’s over. It turns out those studies over the years suggesting that a glass of wine a day can help you live a longer life got it wrong. A new review of 87 previous studies analyzing the relationship between alcohol and such health benefits as a lower risk of heart disease found that the scientific evidence backing these assertions was suspect at best. The problem was that the earlier research compared moderate drinkers to “abstainers,” but those non-drinkers could include people who had quit alcohol because of poor health. That bias may have made abstainers appear less healthy in comparison to the “moderate” drinkers. When the researchers corrected for this bias, they found no net benefits to light to moderate alcohol consumption.

‘Many Reasons to Be Skeptical’

“There’s a general idea out there that alcohol is good for us, because that’s what you hear reported all the time,” lead study author Tim Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria’s Center for Addictions Research in British Columbia, Canada, wrote in a statement. “But there are many reasons to be skeptical.” For people who are at an increased risk for developing alcoholism due to their genetic makeup or a mental disorder like anxiety or depression, this news could have a protective effect. If they never take that first sip of alcohol under the mistaken belief that they are “drinking to their health,” they’ll never be initiated into a behavior that could wind up killing them.

Thin Line Between Moderate and Binge Drinking

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Excessive drinking is defined as: 

  • For women, eight or more drinks per week.
  • For men, 15 or more drinks per week.

So let’s say during the week you adhere closely to those recommended limits — just one glass of wine, no more than 5 ounces, with dinner. But then the weekend comes along and you meet up with friends at the bar. You’ve now jumped categories into heavy drinking. “Moderate drinking can become binge drinking without the person realizing it,” wrote Megan Anderson, lead author of a study published in 2012 in the journal Neuroscience that found that moderate to binge drinking— drinking less during the week and more on the weekends — greatly reduces the structural integrity of the adult brain. The researchers found that creating a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% in rats — the legal driving limit in the United States — significantly disrupted the production of brain cells. This level of alcohol intake did not impair the rodents’ motor skills or short-term learning but the daily intake did, however, affect the ability of the hippocampus to create and retain new cells, reducing brain cell production by as much as 40%. “If this area of your brain was affected every day over many months and years, eventually you might not be able to learn how to get somewhere new or to learn something new about your life,” Anderson said. “It’s something that you might not even be aware is occurring. “This research indicates that social or daily drinking may be more harmful to brain health than what is now believed by the general public.”

Change the Way You Drink

Ready to cut back on your alcohol use? You can still enjoy that glass of wine with dinner (but not every night) and likely not suffer any serious health problems. But don’t fool yourself. It’s no health tonic. Here are a few simple rules to help you reduce your chances of having alcohol-related problems.

  • Be mindful about how much you’re consuming over a week’s time. It might be more than you think.
  • For every alcoholic drink you have, drink a glass of water. This will slow the absorption of alcohol into the system.
  • Always eat before drinking — and during — particularly foods high in protein.
  • Take regular breaks from alcohol. Your body will love the time off.
  • All drinks are not created equal. Understand their strengths and pay attention to serving sizes.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for an alcohol-free “virgin” drink. If you want something that sounds like a cocktail, there’s the Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea) or the “rail splitter” (ginger ale, lemon juice, sugar syrup).Only your brain cells will know the difference.

By Laura Nott

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