Resource article for July: Alcohol and CVD Part I

July 22, 2008 by  

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Part I: The Health Benefits of Alcohol – “Eat, drink and be healthy”

Drinking alcohol has been linked to a wide range of health effects, ranging from the very good to the very bad. A post in June reported on the adverse effects of heavy drinking on cardiovascular health. On the other hand, light to moderate drinking has been shown to have long lasting beneficial effects. The only problem is how to determine the boundary between healthy and unhealthy alcohol consumption. Some researchers are concerned that recent reports about the health benefits of alcohol may mislead people to drink more than they should, thereby doing more harm than good to their health.

The next series of resource posts will be dedicated to the link between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disorders. In the first 2 posts, I will review recent studies on the pros and cons of alcohol consumption. This first part concentrates on the pros.

 What are the health benefits of alcohol?

Light-to-moderate alcohol drinking has been linked to increased levels of good cholesterol HDL and lower risk for coronary heart disease (CHD). These protective effects seem to be stronger in men than in women and in people living in the Mediterranean region. Light-to-moderate drinking leads to increase in HDL cholesterol whereas heavy drinking has been linked to increased LDL cholesterol.

 How do we define light-to-moderate alcohol intake?

In one research, 20 g or less of alcohol per day seems to be a good amount but increasing this can reverse the effect. However, first time or occasional drinkers should be very careful because even low amounts of alcohol can have a string impact on their health [1].

Danish researchers defined moderate alcohol intake as 1 to 14 units of alcohol a week. 1 unit of alcohol is equivalent to half a pint of beer with normal strength, or half of a glass of wine, or a single shot of a spirit [2].

In another study however, researchers report that 1 glass of red wine might be the threshold between good and bad. After a drinking a second glass, the heart rates of the study participants increased and the heart started to pump more blood that needed [3].

Still another study reports that 2 drinks are too much and can increase a woman’s risk of having breast cancer by 10% [4].

So how does alcohol protect us from CHD?

The mechanisms behind this protection are not so clear. It seems that it is not only alcohol but also other substances in wine and other alcoholic drinks which can reduce plaque deposits in the arteries, helps prevents blood clot formation and increases the concentrations of good (HDL) cholesterol in the blood. Some of these compounds [5] are:

  • Resveratrol is supposed to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Melatonin is a strong antioxidant that can counteract oxidative stress and inflammation
  • Flavonoids are strong antioxidants found in many fruit and vegetables.

 Which type of alcoholic beverage is best?

Wine has always been the choice for healthy drinking. It is not the alcohol that gives the protective effect but other substances found in wine. And it also depends on the type of wine. In this study, French wines were found to be better for the heart than German wine. French wines are rich in flavonoids, polyphenols and phytoalexins and have the potential to protect against atherosclerosis. Red wine seems to be richer in resveratol than white wine. The red grape skin produces resveratrol during the fermentation process. The reason why some wines are healthier that others is because of the type of soil where the grapes are grown, not where the wine mature in [5].

Some studies have shown that beer can also have some beneficial effects. In Bavaria (Germany) and the Czech Republic where beer is preferred over wine, moderate beer consumption have shown some protective effects similar to those observed in the Mediterannean region [6].

 Alcohol and food

Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach is a no-no – alcohol is best taken with food. In this study of 2609 white adult New Yorkers, drinking alchohol outside meals, regardless of the amount or the type consumed was found to have a significant effect on hypertension risk. Light to moderate drinking with meals, however, can lower blood pressure, positively affect blood lipids and dissolved blood clots [7].

 A little bit of alcohol goes well with exercise

A study by Danish researchers show than combining exercise with alcohol may actually prolong your life. They studied11,914 men and women, their lifestyle and alcohol consumption for almost 20 years [2]. Their results show that

  • Non-drinking couch potatoes have the highest risk of having heart problems – 49% higher than the others.
  • The physically active teetotalers have about 33% lower risk than those leading sedentary lifestyles.
  • The physical active moderate drinkers have almost 50% lower risk than those leading sedentary lifestyles.
  • Among those who are active and doing similar amounts of exercise, the moderate drinkers won hands down, having 30% less likelihood to have heart disease than their non-drinking counterparts.

 Now, this review of several studies indicates that alcohol indeed has some health benefits. But before you reach for that bottle, take note that the definition of light-to-moderate drinking is not so clear, and that the protective benefits of alcohol depends on many factors including gender, diet, and the type of drink. And that is not all. In the second part of this series, I’ll be telling you about the dangerous side of alcohol. Stay tuned!


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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.

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