Study after study reaffirms that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol daily as a part of a healthy lifestyle can help you live longer—longer than if you abstain from alcohol altogether. Moderate drinkers can expect to have lower blood pressure, improved memory, fewer colds, less heart disease, decreased stress, reduced ulcers and better overall cardiovascular health. They also have a greater chance of avoiding strokes, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease while living a generally happier life. What constitutes alcoholism.
But abuse of that same alcohol can result in interpersonal problems, high blood pressure, obesity, accidents, violence, stroke, liver disease, brain atrophy, cancer, pancreatitis, birth defects, miscarriage, alcohol poisoning, alcoholic cardiomyopathy and even death.
The line of demarcation between healthy and life-threatening alcohol consumption seems to be elusive. The term “moderate drinking” can mean different things to different people, depending on culture and personal experience. A drinker may think, “Oh, I’m fine—I don’t feel a thing yet,” but it is important to remember that when drinking alcohol one of the first things to go is sound judgment. It is not unusual for drinkers to believe they are not affected even as they are slurring their speech through purple teeth and marveling at their own lucidity.
A sobering study released in 2007 showed that nearly one third of Americans either have or have had an alcohol use disorder, including alcohol abuse or alcohol dependency, in their lifetime. One of the study authors, Bridget F. Grant, PhD, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and National Institutes of Health, assured Vision that the majority of those people did not realize that they had problems with alcohol. More than 43,000 adults representing a cross-section of the American population were interviewed for the study. They answered questions based on the symptoms of alcohol abuse and dependence listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), and results were tallied from their responses. Although treatment options are widely available, only about a quarter (24.1 percent) of those who were found to have had alcohol use disorders had ever received treatment. This was partially due to the fact that so many of them did not know they were in danger. The authors concluded, “Alcohol abuse and dependence remain highly prevalent and disabling,” and stressed the need for “vigorous education efforts for the public and professionals.”
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Basic alcohol education begins with the definition of a serving size. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and others have established a single serving of alcohol to be 13.7 grams of pure alcohol. They stress, “It is the amount of ethanol consumed that affects a person most, not the type of alcoholic drink.” One serving of wine is 5 ounces, one serving of beer is 12 ounces, one serving of malt liquor is 8 ounces and one serving of distilled spirits (80 proof) is 1.5 ounces. Of course, the alcohol level may be slightly more or less, depending on the alcohol content of the individual brand or vintage of wine, beer or spirits.
Although different countries have different expectations about what constitutes moderate alcohol consumption, the CDC guidelines for moderate drinking correlate with the amounts in studies from Europe, Britain and the United States released in 2008 showing the health benefits of moderate alcohol use.
According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), “Moderation is defined as the consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.” This does not mean you can “save up” and have your drinks all at once. The DGA stresses that their “definition of moderation is not intended as an average over several days but rather as the amount consumed on any single day.” Abstaining for a few days, then drinking five or six drinks in one night does not give the health benefits associated with consuming one or two glasses per night. Binge drinking leads to unhealthy elevated blood alcohol levels. Under such circumstances, alcohol levels can continue to rise beyond levels that the body can handle. A rule of thumb is that an average male human body can process about one serving of alcohol per hour. The bodies of women and older adults take about twice as long. And as men and women age, their metabolisms slow, meaning their bodies can handle less alcohol.
Each person, male or female, has a different body composition, and the amount of other liquids and foods already in the body can affect the metabolism of alcohol. Until recently, people assumed the reasons women could handle less alcohol than men was simply because of the average relative sizes of male and female bodies. There is some truth to this, but body composition plays an important role as well. Typically, men have a higher proportion of water in their bodies while women have a higher proportion of fat. Since water dilutes alcohol but fat cannot absorb it, the concentration of alcohol in the body of a man will be lower than it would be in the body of a woman of equal size. Another factor came to light after a study on the subject was published in the April 2001 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. The study explained that women metabolize alcohol differently, as they have less of the gastric enzyme dehydrogenase to break down the alcohol in the stomach. This results in more alcohol entering a woman’s bloodstream before it is metabolized. An additional difference between men and women involves hormonal changes, whether monthly or related to menopause, which affect a woman’s metabolic reaction to alcohol.
The most important way to ensure that you maximize the health benefits of drinking alcohol without creating health problems is to pay attention to what you drink, when you drink and how much you drink. Set a limit on your consumption before you start drinking. Sipping, not guzzling, beer, wine and spirits and alternating those drinks with an equal or greater amount of water helps the body deal with the alcohol, as does eating healthy food with the alcoholic beverages. Pace yourself. Add up the amount of alcohol in each drink and stop when you reach your predetermined limit. And, as our ancestors were told many centuries ago, make certain to avoid people and situations that may tempt you to overindulge (Proverbs 23:20-21) but enjoy alcohol in moderation with your friends. It certainly is a delightful bonus that something you and your friends can take pleasure in together can help you live a longer and happier life.