By Leigh Savage
If you enjoy a glass of wine in the evening, or an after-dinner cocktail, Dr. Jack Durham of PartnerMD says keep doing what you’re doing.
“There seems to be a public misconception that alcohol is bad, that any drinking is bad, and it’s actually not that way at all,” Durham says. “I tell my patients that alcohol in moderation is not a bad thing, and it may actually be a good thing.”
Studies and media reports tend to offer opposing viewpoints, some saying that drinking is healthy while others recommend cutting alcohol as much as possible. Durham says research so far indicates that moderate drinking does offer several health benefits, including reduced risk of dying from heart disease and reduced risk of certain types of strokes.
The key is knowing what “moderate” means. Durham defines it as one drink per day for women of all ages and for men over age 65. Men under 65 can have up to two drinks per day. “It sounds a little sexist, but it’s the way men metabolize alcohol, and they usually have more body weight,” he says.
“One drink” means one 12-ounce beer, one mixed drink with a standard jigger (1.5 ounces) of alcohol, or five ounces of wine. The wine recommendation can be a surprise. “One night I decided to see for myself, and I realized I had been pouring more like 6-8 ounces of wine instead of the recommended 4-5 ounces,” he says. The larger wine glass he was using meant 5 ounces filled only about a third of the glass.
Though moderate alcohol use has health benefits, he tells teetotalers they can get just as many health benefits through other means, such as exercise and nutrition, and they don’t need to start drinking.
Other people should refrain as well, including pregnant women, those with a history of liver disease, people on medications for anxiety or depression, and anyone with a personal or family history of addiction issues. Abstaining is also better than drinking alcohol in larger quantities, which increases the risk of high blood pressure, breast cancer, liver cancer and pancreatitis, among other health issues. “And larger quantities can cause people to make poor decisions, such as driving while under the influence,” Durham says.
But for those who can easily stop at one or two, having a drink can be cardioprotective, possibly because of increased HDL levels and decreased clotting. The latest research shows that moderate drinking reduces risk of heart disease and ischemic stroke, possibly due to lower levels of fibrinogen, which forms clots. New studies also show that drinking might reduce the risk of diabetes. “That’s counterintuitive to me,” he says, but more studies should explain the effect.
Talking with your doctor is important, no matter how much you drink, because she or he can help you recognize if you are drinking too much to reap the benefits. He takes a social history of each patient and brings up drinking, though occasionally patients bring it up themselves. “If people say they think they have a problem with alcohol, then they usually do,” he says. “There are a slew of medications we can use to degrease that urge and help people get off of alcohol.”
But for most patients, he can reassure them that what they are doing is fine. “Like everything else, moderation is the key,” he says. “Common sense goes a long way.”