How Much Alcohol Is Too Much For You?

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A couple of drinks a day aren’t bad for you and may even be good for you.

Right?

That’s been the message — from researchers, governments, and beverage companies — for decades. And as a result, many of us don’t think twice about tossing back a couple of glasses or wine or a few beers after work.

But maybe we should. Because it turns out the story about the health effects of moderate drinking is shifting pretty dramatically. New research on alcohol and mortality, and a growing awareness about the rise in alcohol-related deaths in the US, is causing a reckoning among researchers about even moderate levels of alcohol consumption.

In particular, an impressive new meta-study involving 600,000 participants, published recently in The Lancet, suggests that levels of alcohol previously thought to be relatively harmless are linked with an earlier death. What’s more, drinking small amounts of alcohol may not carry all the long-touted protective effects on the cardiovascular system.

“For years, there was a sense that there was an optimal level which was not drinking no alcohol but drinking moderately that led to the best health outcomes,” said Duke University’s Dan Blazer, an author of the paper. “I think we’re going to have to rethink that a bit.”

Alongside this study have come disturbing reports of the alcohol industry’s involvement in funding science that may have helped drinking look more favorable, as well as a growing worry that many people are naive about alcohol’s health effects. How many people know, for example, that as far back as 1988, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer designated alcohol a level-one carcinogen? Some say too few.





Maybe it’s time that changes — with some caveats, as usual.

The “French paradox,” and why researchers thought a bit of alcohol was good for you
The story of light drinking as a healthy behavior started to take off in the 1990s, when many researchers believed red wine might be a magical elixir. This idea was known as the “French paradox” — the observation that the French drank lots of wine, and despite eating a diet rich in saturated fat, had lower rates of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers have since discovered it’s more than just their wine consumption that sets French people apart. But the red wine idea was replaced by a narrative suggesting drinking small amounts of any type of alcohol — no more than one drink a day for women, two for men — appeared to be linked with modest health and heart benefits.

In long-term observational studies comparing drinkers and non-drinkers, light to moderate drinkers (who imbibed about one to two units of alcohol a day) often had better health outcomes compared to non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. They had lower rates of heart disease and heart attacks and lived longer. Moderate drinkers also had lower rates of diabetes, another important risk factor for heart disease (although this result is less definitive).

But there was a problem with these studies: Many compared drinkers to non-drinkers, instead of comparing only lighter drinkers to heavier drinkers. And people who don’t drink are pretty fundamentally different from drinkers in ways that are hard to control for in a study. Their lives probably look dissimilar. But most importantly, they may be sicker at baseline (perhaps they quit drinking because of alcoholism, or because of a health issue like cancer). And something in these differences — not their avoidance of alcohol — may have caused them to look like they were in poorer health than the moderate drinkers. (This became known as the “sick quitter” problem in the world of alcohol research.)




More recently, researchers have been trying to overcome that problem by comparing lighter drinkers with heavier drinkers. And the benefits of modest amounts of alcohol wash away.

The upper safe limit for drinking may be lower than you think

The most important new study on this was just published in The Lancet. Researchers brought together data from 83 studies in 19 countries, focusing on nearly 600,000 current drinkers (again, to overcome the “sick quitter” problem). They wanted to tease out what level of drinking was associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.



Their findings were stark: Drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol — about seven standard glasses of wine or beer — per week was associated with an increased in risk of death for all causes. In the US, the government suggests men can drink double that amount — up to two drinks per day — but advise women who are not pregnant to drink up to one drink per day.

A person’s risk of death shot up as they drank more. The researchers used a mathematical model to estimate that people who consumed between seven and 14 drinks per week had a lower life expectancy at age 40 of about six months; people who drank between 14 and 24 drinks per week had one to two years shaved off their lives; and people who imbibed more than 24 drinks a week had a lower life expectancy of four to five years.

Source: Vox,com

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