Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?

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If you enjoy sipping a glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail now and then, keep moderation in mind to protect your health.

Moderate alcohol consumption means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Different types of beer, wine and liquor have different amounts of alcohol. But in general, a drink is one 12-ounce regular beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, such as bourbon, vodka or gin.

Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk for many health problems, including high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, liver disease, depression, suicide, accidents, alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

AHA Recommendation: Moderation is key.

If you don’t drink already, don’t start. If you do drink, talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation. Some people should not drink at all, like women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, people under age 21 and people with certain health conditions.

How does drinking alcohol affect health?

Here’s what science tells us about alcohol’s effects on the body.

Drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood known as triglycerides. A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol has been associated with fatty buildup in the artery walls. That, in turn, can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Excessive drinking can also lead to high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and even death from alcohol poisoning. And it can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways, affecting the way the brain works.

Binge drinking — having five or more drinks in two hours for men or four or more drinks for women — may put you at higher risk for atrial fibrillation, an irregular or quivering heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure.

Heavy drinking may also prematurely age arteries over time, particularly in men, when compared to moderate drinkers.

Plus, all the extra calories from drinking alcohol can lead to obesity and a higher risk of developing diabetes.

Isn’t red wine supposed to be healthy?

We’ve all seen the headlines about studies associating light or moderate drinking with health benefits and reduced mortality. Some researchers have suggested there are health benefits from wine, especially red wine, and that a glass a day can be good for the heart.

But there’s more to the story.

No research has proved a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health.

Components in red wine such as flavonoids and other antioxidants can potentially reduce heart disease risk, but they can also be found in other foods like grapes or red grape juice or blueberries.

It's unclear whether red wine is directly associated with the health benefits seen in some studies, or whether other factors are at play. It might be that moderate wine drinkers are more likely to have a healthier diet and lifestyle — including physical activity and lots of fruits and vegetables.

The best-known positive health effect of alcohol is a small increase in HDL, or good cholesterol. But regular physical activity is a more effective way to raise HDL cholesterol.

The American Heart Association does not recommend drinking wine or any other form of alcohol to gain potential health benefits. Instead, take steps to lower cholesterol, control high blood pressure, manage weight, get enough physical activity, stay away from tobacco and follow a healthy diet.

I drink every day, but not very much. Is that risky?

Some studies have shown that those who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have lower rates of heart disease than nondrinkers. But drinking alcohol every day to excess can lead to serious cardiovascular disease risks including high blood pressure, obesity and stroke. If you find yourself drinking more and more over time, consider cutting back.

Is a glass of wine a day OK if I have diabetes? Can alcohol affect glucose levels?

The flavonoids and other antioxidants in wine can protect the heart and blood vessels from the damaging effects of free oxygen radicals produced by the body. This is particularly true for diabetics because they have been shown to have a high production of free oxygen radicals.

But there isn’t any scientific evidence specifically related to alcohol consumption and diabetes.

On the downside, excessive drinking can increase the risk of high blood pressure, and people with diabetes are already at high risk.

For all people, alcohol can lower blood sugar. If your doctor has cleared you to drink alcohol in moderation, be sure to eat a meal or snack when you drink to keep your blood sugar from getting too low.

Is alcohol high in calories?

Alcoholic drinks contain calories, and so do many mixers added to alcoholic drinks, such as soda, juice or cream. Added sugars can also come in the form of simple syrup or liqueurs, which are common ingredients in many cocktails.

A beer or glass of wine is generally around 100 to 150 calories. A cocktail can range from 100 to nearly 500 calories, depending on the ingredients. If you drink alcohol, remember to include it in your meal planning so you’re not getting more calories than you need.

Can I drink alcohol if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?

Pregnant women should not drink. It can seriously harm the baby and may cause birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome.

If you’re breastfeeding your newborn, be aware there may be an association between alcohol in breast milk and reduced thinking and reasoning skills in the child at a later age. So, it may be best to avoid drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.

Is it OK to take aspirin and drink alcohol?

People who take aspirin regularly are at risk for stomach problems, including stomach bleeding. Alcohol use can increase these stomach risks, so ask your doctor if it is safe for you to drink alcohol in moderation.

Before taking any over the counter or prescription medication, check with a pharmacist or doctor about any potential interactions with alcohol.

Alcohol helps me relax. How else can I deal with stress?

Drinking alcohol may seem like a convenient way to cope with stress, but there are many other healthier strategies. Staying physically active, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep and maintaining a positive attitude are some good ways to manage stress.

Try meditation, yoga or relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing. Or pledge to spend 15 minutes each day finding pleasure in something you enjoy that doesn’t include drinking alcohol. There are lots of options.

What’s the bottom line?

Drink alcoholic beverages only in moderation, if at all. Understand the potential effects on your health if you do indulge. And don’t start drinking for unproven health benefits.


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