Red wine lowers cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers the risk of stroke, cuts the risk of colon cancer, controls blood sugar levels and prevents dementia.
‘In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.’
As a connoisseur of red wine, I was delighted to hear about a scientific report suggesting that light-to-moderate drinking slashes the risk of an early death by a fifth. Particularly heartening was that red wine was singled out as being beneficial, at least in moderation.
There have been dozens of other studies that also suggest drinking moderate amounts of alcohol – roughly 14 units a week for men and women – a figure agreed in 2016 by the UK Department of Health – could protect you from various diseases, and even extend your life.
Researchers worldwide have linked moderate consumption to preventing the common cold, improving your sex life, and even reducing the risk of developing gallstones.
However, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, recently advised that there is no safe drinking limit ‘because alcohol is toxic to the liver and other organs.’ She stated women should consider their risk of breast cancer every time they reach for a glass of wine and advised the public to swap alcohol for a cup of tea, the little do-gooder.
But the danger has been exaggerated to get the message across that over indulgence is bad for you – and others – if your drinking is out of control. That is certainly true – excessive drinking is linked to a host of health issues including cancer, poor mental health, liver disease and premature death.
Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, says that the long-term effects of low alcohol consumption are complex and difficult to investigate, which is why people have been to some extent misinformed and even confused. And Mr John Scurr, a leading consultant vascular surgeon at the Lister Hospital, Chelsea, agrees that we’re getting mixed messages when it comes to the link between alcohol and health.
The Department of Health takes a very firm line on alcohol and claims it is never safe. Yet a host of scientific studies show that alcohol can be beneficial in moderation. Some people do drink to excess and others become addicted, but to say drinking is always bad is just plain wrong!
So… time to take a closer and more reasoned look at the effect alcohol is really having on our health.
- Liver disease
Too much alcohol can lead to a range of liver complaints, including fatty liver disease, hepatitis and other problems. At University College London, Professor Rajiv Jalan says people with healthy livers do not need to abstain. The liver is designed to cope with a certain level of toxicity in the blood. Although not beneficial to the liver, alcohol in moderation – one or two units taken with meals – won’t harm it.
The bad news – older people build up a tolerance to alcohol over the years and are thus more at risk of liver disease. As they age, their livers renew more slowly and are thus damaged by alcohol more quickly. Oldies should be careful with their drinking because less alcohol will likely cause more damage. They are also more likely to be taking prescription drugs, which when metabolised in the liver can affect metabolism and make it less effective. For example, alcohol can inhibit the action of the blood thinning agent warfarin and increase the risk of blood clots and stroke.
Alcohol contains huge amounts of calories and so drinking can cause blood sugar levels to rise – a pint of lager is the equivalent of a slice of pizza – and obesity is a risk factor for type2 diabetes. Too much alcohol can also reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, and increase the likelihood of diabetes.
On the other hand moderate drinking may actually help to protect against type2 diabetes. According to a review of 15 studies published in journal Diabetes Care, healthy adults who drank just three units of alcohol a day lowered their risk of getting type2 diabetes by up to 40% for women but only 30% for men. The research also found that non-drinkers ran the same risk of developing the disease as heavy drinkers.
- Heart Disease
Multiple studies have shown that alcohol may protect against heart disease because it helps raise levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and prevents furring of the arteries. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017, 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 more than abstinence!
Moderate drinkers were found less likely to have problems such as angina, heart attack, stroke and aortic aneurysm than non-drinkers. Heavy drinking however, had the opposite effect and increased the risk of all these diseases.
Some specialists encourage patients with vascular problems to drink regular small amounts of alcohol to help alleviate their symptoms. Alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate which in turn 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. Like Aspirin, alcohol makes the blood less sticky and that reduces the risk of strokes. Who needs Warfarin when a glass of red will do the trick?
- Breast Cancer
The verdict of a recent review of evidence published by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund is that even moderate drinking, say just one glass of wine a day, can increase the risk of breast cancer by 5% for pre-menopausal women and 9% for post-menopausal women, while heavy drinkers can increase their risk by up to 50%.
It appears that there is no level of alcohol that is completely safe in terms of breast cancer. Alcohol may damage DNA in cells, allowing cancers to develop, and can also increase the levels of certain hormones, including oestrogen, which can assist the development of hormone-sensitive breast cancer.
But drinking alcohol in moderation may actually help women with the disease live longer, at least that is 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% compared to those who abstained.
A unique study from the University of San Diego found that moderate to heavy drinkers – that is, those who had 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.
Researchers examined older men and women’s health and compared it to their cognitive abilities. They found that alcohol consumption is not only associated with reduced mortality, but with increased chances of remaining cognitively healthy into older age.
- Life expectancy
So will a daily glass or two help you live longer? According to a study published in August 2017 by the American College of Cardiology, the answer is – YES!
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% for women drinkers and 13% for male drinkers. But those results are reversed if people drink heavily, with heavy drinkers 25% more likely to die early.
While the tea-drinking chief medical officer has dismissed the argument that red wine can be healthy, other studies suggest it has a chemical composition that makes it special. Antioxidants, which help to mop up harmful free radicals in the blood, such as resveratrol and proanthocyanidins found in red wine are believed to be responsible for the health benefits. It also contains plant compounds called flavonoids, used in many drug therapies to help improve circulation.
Resveratrol is found in grape skin and also in non-alcoholic red grape juice. Non-drinkers who want to get the benefit of the compound – thought to help keep arteries flexible and decrease blood pressure – could benefit from drinking it.
Pure alcohol (ethanol) which is found in spirits, beer and cider, is probably responsible for the majority of the protective effect against cardiovascular disease because it causes vasodilation – the expansion of blood vessels – and helps to keep arteries free from furry deposits which can lead to heart disease.
Low-calorie alcoholic drinks are preferable as they help to reduce weight gain. Beer – oft blamed for being high in calories – actually contains half the amount as a similar volume of red wine – but of course people tend to drink twice as much of it.
Overall, studies seem to suggest that alcohol can be beneficial. In particular, red wine in moderation has been shown to bestow the greatest benefits – even more so than white wine – and surprisingly, abstinence.