Alcohol and your health: Weighing the pros and cons


Consider these points when weighing the risks and benefits of alcohol use.

For every article you read about the benefits of alcohol consumption, another seems to warn you of its risks. You might find such conflicting information confusing and frustrating.
Though moderate alcohol use seems to have some health benefits, anything more than moderate drinking can negate any potential benefits. Moderate drinking is defined as two drinks a day if you're a male under 65, or one drink a day if you're a female or a male over 65.
So should you avoid alcohol? Or can you continue to enjoy your glass of wine with dinner? It's up to you and your doctor. Here are some points on alcohol consumption for you to consider.

Health benefits

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits. It may:

  • Reduce your risk of developing heart disease, peripheral vascular disease and intermittent claudication

  • Reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack

  • Possibly reduce your risk of strokes, particularly ischemic strokes

  • Lower your risk of gallstones

  • Possibly reduce your risk of diabetes

Health risks

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to serious health problems, including:

  • Cancer of the pancreas, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and liver, as well as breast cancer

  • Pancreatitis, especially in people with high levels of triglycerides in their blood

  • Sudden death in people with cardiovascular disease

  • Heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) leading to heart failure

  • Stroke

  • Brain atrophy (shrinkage)

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Miscarriage

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome in an unborn child, including impaired growth and nervous system development

  • Injuries due to impaired motor skills

  • Suicide

What counts as a drink?

A drink is defined as 12 ounces (oz.) of beer, 5 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof distilled spirits. Again, keep in mind that people age 65 and older shouldn't drink more than one drink a day. With increasing age, adults break down alcohol more slowly, leading them to become intoxicated more quickly and increasing alcohol's damaging effects.

Who shouldn't drink alcohol?

People with certain health conditions shouldn't drink any alcohol, as even small amounts could cause problems. Don't drink alcohol if you have:

  • A history of a hemorrhagic stroke

  • Liver disease

  • Pancreatic disease

  • Evidence of precancerous changes in the esophagus, larynx, pharynx or mouth

If you have a family history of alcoholism, be particularly cautious when it comes to drinking, as you are at higher risk of alcoholism. And if you're pregnant, avoid alcohol entirely because of the health risks for your unborn baby.

In addition, alcohol interacts with many common prescription and over-the-counter medications. Check with your doctor, if you take:

  • Antibiotics

  • Anticoagulants

  • Antidepressants

  • Diabetes medications

  • Antihistamines

  • Anti-seizure medications

  • Beta blockers

  • Pain relievers

  • Sleeping pills

If you combine alcohol with aspirin, you face an increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. And if you use alcohol and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), you increase your risk of liver damage. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration requires all over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers to carry a warning label advising those who consume three or more drinks a day to consult with their doctors before using the drug.

What to make of all the evidence

Weigh the pros against the cons of moderate drinking and decide whether drinking is OK for you. Be sure to consult your doctor if you have questions or are unsure.

Above all, don't feel pressured to drink. Few medical experts, if any, advise nondrinkers to start drinking. But if you do drink and you're healthy, there's no need to stop as long as you drink responsibly and in moderation.



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