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Alcohol has always had a complicated relationship with human health and well being and equally confusing are the opposing claims that make it difficult for one to decide whether this fermented drink is a friend or a foe.

If you are one of the many people who love to enjoy a glass of wine with your meals, it might interest you to know that it has been scientifically proven that people who take a moderate amount of alcohol live a healthier and longer life than people who abstain from drinking.

But what makes one decide if it's too much? What exactly is moderate alcohol or just a drink?

And what are these health benefits that people talk about?

You’ll find answers to all of these questions in this article along with some evidence-based facts that would help you put your point across the next time someone lists you all the downsides of alcohol.

  1. Moderate amount of alcohol: How much is too much
  2. Health benefits of drinking alcohol in moderation
  3. Side effects of alcohol
  4. Takeaway
  5. How to get rid of a hangover

Taking just a drink or consuming alcohol in moderation are some of the common phrases most of us hear almost every other day. But a drink can be a small shot or even a large cocktail mug, how do you define what exactly a drink entails?

According to the National Drug Dependence Treatment centre, India, alcohol guidelines for men are 16g/ day and for women, 8g/day. However, this value depends on the amount of alcohol present in a drink rather than the total amount consumed. So, a drink which has a higher alcohol content would be taken in a lesser amount and vice versa.

Total alcohol amount is defined in units instead of grams, wherein one unit usually translates to about 8g or 10mL. This is basically the amount of alcohol a human body can absorb and eliminate within an hour.

How to calculate units

Alcohol units can easily be converted into percentage and amount of alcohol by using a simple mathematical equation. If you can count calories, you can definitely ensure the amount of alcohol going within your system.

The term alcohol by volume (ABV) is used to define the amount of pure alcohol present in a drink. It is usually printed on alcohol bottles and you can always ask the bartender.

Let’s say a bottle has 10% ABV. This usually means that 10% of that drink is only alcohol. The total units of alcohol that you are drinking can be calculated as:

ABV x total alcohol consumed/ 1000

Let’s say you had 500mL of the drink, the number of units would be:

10 x 500/1000 = 5

The following table would make it easier for you to put tabs on your everyday alcohol consumption:

Type of drink ABV % Amount in mL Units
Wine (red/white/rose) 12 125 1.5
Beer/lager can 5.5 440 2
Beer/lager bottle 5 330 1.7

One shot of any distilled alcohol*

40 25 1

* gin, rum, vodka, whiskey or tequila

Strong strength beer and lager may have a higher alcohol content and total units of consumption for about a 470 ml or one pint of such drink may reach up to 3. Beer and lager with a weaker strength would provide 2 units a pint/470 ml.

Sure, alcohol consumption is not good for health, but the health benefits of a moderate amount of alcohol cannot be completely denied. Let us have a look at some of the evidence that tells you just how you can benefit by keeping your total alcohol consumption under check.

Reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular disease is a term used to refer to any condition affecting the heart and blood vessels. They are one of the major causes of hospitalisation and deaths all over the world. It might interest you to know that taking moderate amounts of alcohol may help you reduce the risk of these diseases. In fact, the cardiovascular benefits of low alcohol consumption have been well studied and defined. And the best part is that it is not only useful to healthy people but also a moderate alcohol consumption has been found to be beneficial for people suffering from high blood pressure or those who have a history of stroke and heart attack.

But how does alcohol help you do that?

  • Clinical studies indicate that alcohol consumption in moderate amounts reduces inflammation, which is considered to be one of the primary causes of atherosclerosis and heart diseases.
  • It helps reduce the amount of LDL or bad cholesterol in the body while at the same time, it increases the HDL or good cholesterol. (Read more: High cholesterol symptoms and treatment)
  • It also assists your body in maintaining optimum blood pressure levels, which again is good for a healthy heart.
  • Alcohol is linked to the fibrinogen, and thereby blood clotting levels in a U-shaped pattern. This means that moderate alcohol drinkers have a lesser chance of arterial blood clots and hence haemorrhage or heart attack than an excessive drinker or a person who doesn’t drink at all.
  • In a clinical study, women who drink 250 ml of wine regularly were reported to have better functioning of blood vessels and hence a much lower risk of cardiovascular diseases than women who don’t. It has been further indicated that alcohol increases the levels of nitric oxide in the blood, which is beneficial to the heart in low amounts; however, the effects may reverse in larger amounts.

Improved immune system

Alcohol consumption is usually related to a suppressed immune response; however, the effects of alcohol depend on the age, gender, physical and physiological condition and the amount of alcohol consumed. Generally, a higher level of alcohol consumption suppresses the immune system on all levels but moderate consumption of alcohol has been found to be beneficial to immunity and health. Studies suggest that consuming low levels of alcohol improves the levels of white blood cells, cytokines and antibodies.

In a clinical study, consuming 330 ml of beer regularly increases the levels of macrophages and bactericidal activity against Escherichia coli.

This is due to the presence of biologically active components in alcoholic beverages such as fibre, minerals, and vitamins. Resveratrol present in red wine has been found to exhibit potent immunostimulatory activity at low levels and immunosuppression at high levels. Xanthohumol present in beer demonstrates anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. This means that it helps protect and improve organ function.

Further, preclinical studies indicate that regular drinkers have a more favourable effect on the immune system than those who drink 3 days per week. Though the study did not compare the immune system of abstainers to occasional drinkers.

(Read more: How to improve immunity)

Benefits for diabetic people

Excess alcohol consumption is one of the primary risk factors for diabetes. But, do you know that moderate to low level of alcohol may actually help you maintain your blood sugar levels? It has been scientifically proven that alcohol, when taken in mild or moderate amounts, increases insulin sensitivity, the ability of insulin to take up extra glucose from the blood. Also, it exhibits a hypoglycemic (reducing blood sugar) effect by inhibiting the conversion of fats and proteins into glucose. Though this hypoglycemia depends on the nature of food taken along with alcohol. In case of a carbohydrate-rich meal it usually causes a reduction in blood glucose within 4 hours of the meal; however, when taken without many carbs, the effect is immediate.

Diabetes also increases the risk of blood clotting and atherosclerosis, by reducing bad cholesterol and fibrinogen formation. Mild alcohol consumption counters both these complications too.

Alcohol consumption effects on brain

Several studies demonstrate the beneficial effects of mild to moderate alcohol, especially wine consumption on memory and cognitive skills in humans. This is mainly attributed to the antioxidants effects of polyphenols and flavonoids present in wine. It has been found that these compounds reduce the risk of stroke and dementia. Further, morin, a flavonoid present in wine prevents the accumulation of A-beta protein in the brain, which is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Resveratrol present in red wine also reduces the risk of neurodegeneration, as demonstrated by research evidence.

Alcohol and obesity

Extensive studies have been done on the effects of alcohol on body weight and BMI and the results have been quite controversial. According to an article mentioned in the journal Current Obesity Reports, 1g of alcohol provides about 7kcal of energy, which just adds to your total energy intake. Since body weight and BMI are mainly dependent on the energy balance (intake and use of energy), alcohol consumption may cause weight gain, when paired with a high-calorie diet.

However, moderate alcohol consumption has been found to be associated with a lower risk of obesity and weight gain in middle-aged and older women. But, heavier drinking may cause an increase in BMI and risk of obesity.

The effects of mild to moderate alcohol consumption are not as clear in men, one piece of evidence suggests no apparent effects while there have been studies which indicate that consuming a moderate amount of alcohol may facilitate non-significant weight loss.

According to a study published in the Journal of the International Association, taking a beer or other types of alcohol may increase waist circumference but wine consumption is beneficial in trimming down those extra inches.

(Read more: What is metabolism and how to improve it)

Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol may have its benefits but let’s face it, it is hard to keep tabs on every glass and count, no matter how health conscious you are. If you are a controlled drinker, you must have at least once faced the wraths of hangover, nausea and headache. These effects, though seemingly worse when you are going through them, are not as harmful as alcohol dependence or abuse. Now that you have got to know about the good side of alcohol, let us move on to the side effects.

  • Though recreational drinking may prevent weight gain, drinking too much alcohol has an opposite effect on the body. We already know that alcohol adds to your daily calorie count. Studies suggest that consuming alcohol increases appetite and makes one eat more than the desired amount. Impulsive eating further adds up to your energy intake, which piles up in the form of extra kilos.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption has been found to be detrimental to the brain since it reduces cognition and increases the risk of dementia and neurological disorders. This is especially true for adolescents, the age at which most people start drinking. Clinical studies report major damage to brain structure in teens and young adults who drink 4-5 drinks a day.
  • Though alcohol helps in managing blood sugar levels in diabetics, excessive alcohol consumption leads to an increase in insulin resistance, and hence, a higher risk of diabetes and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels).
  • Alcoholics have a much degraded immune response to pathogenic organisms than people who take a moderate amount of alcohol.
  • Consuming more alcohol causes fat accumulation in your liver, which slowly deteriorates the liver function. Alcoholic liver disease may pose a risk of hepatitis, and in the long term, excessive alcohol consumption may cause liver damage, cirrhosis, and fibrosis.
  • Chronic alcohol consumption is a primary risk factor in cancer development. Research evidence indicates that taking 3 or more glasses of drinks per day has a direct link with the risk of liver cancer. Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with about a 50% higher risk of colorectal cancer and breast cancer and a 30% more chances of developing prostate cancer.
  • Alcohol consumption is severely detrimental to the health of the foetus and expecting mothers. Alcohol has been found to cause birth defects and miscarriages, especially when taken in the first trimester. Studies suggest that consuming 2 to 4 drinks per week poses a higher threat of miscarriage than avoiding it altogether or consuming 1 to 2 drinks per week.
  • While alcohol may help you live longer by preventing the risk of so many diseases and improving your immunity, alcohol abuse does the opposite. Not to mention the drunk driving accidents and alcohol addiction.
  • Binge drinking has been found to reduce sexual inhibitions in men and increase sexual arousal in both genders. Studies indicate that it reduces the motivation to use contraception and is hence one of the major causes of unplanned pregnancies and STDs.

Recreational alcohol consumption in mild to moderate amounts may improve your health. Not only does it prevent various chronic diseases but also it improves your body’s inherent immune response that makes your life better and helps you live longer. However, alcohol abuse poses a threat of liver damage, cognition reduction and increases the risk of cancer.

Also, it is important to note that all of the above benefits have been discussed for current alcohol consumers and in no way suggest that you indulge in this habit.

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