To Your Health
Drinking Alcohol: Can It Be A Healthy Pleasure?

by Paulette Avery, R.N., M.S.N.

"To your health," the title of this column, is also a common toast. But can the pleasures of alcohol really bring good health?

Yes, say Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., and David Sobel, M.D., in their book, Healthy Pleasures. Once again, the key is moderation. Excessive alcohol, usually defined as more than three drinks a day, definitely causes many health problems, including high blood pressure, liver and brain damage, weakened immunity, gastrointestinal problems, and birth defects. But for those who enjoy from one to three drinks a day, there appear to be benefits. Surprisingly, people who drink alcohol in moderation may enjoy better health and longer lives than those who don't drink alcohol at all.

A healthier heart may be one benefit of moderate alcohol intake. The results of a study by Arthur Klatsky and his associates found that moderate drinkers were hospitalized with a heart attack only 40 percent as often as total abstainers. In a later study they found the lowest overall death rates among people who averaged one to two drinks per day. Heavy drinkers (six or more drinks daily) had twice the death rate of light drinkers, while nondrinkers and those consuming three to five drinks each day had a 50 percent greater mortality rate. Interestingly, the deaths of the heavy drinkers resulted from cirrhosis, cancer and lung problems, not from heart disease.

Further support for the connection between alcohol intake and heart health comes from the Honolulu Heart Study. Those results found that ex-drinkers had 56 heart attacks per one thousand, the highest rate, while nondrinkers had 44 cases per one thousand. The lowest rate occurred among moderate drinkers who had 30 cases per one thousand. Sobel and Ornstein quote from an editorial that accompanied publication of this study: "It is encouraging to note that not everything one enjoys in life predisposes to cardiovascular disease. There is nothing to suggest, for the present, that we must give up either coffee or alcohol in moderation to avoid a heart attack." And although some studies indicate the most heart benefits from drinking wine, other studies demonstrate the type of alcohol makes little difference.

Research has found other benefits to drinking alcohol. The ability of wine to stimulate appetite is known to most of us. A study of undernourished hospitalized patients found that those who drank a small glass of dry wine before meals ate up to 60 percent more and increased their body weight faster than those who did not. On the other hand, a study from Stanford indicates that alcohol may increase metabolism and that some obese people may lose weight more easily when they drink wine with meals.

Psychological benefits from moderate alcohol intake include reduced anxiety and improved mood. In a study of nursing home residents, drinking one beer in the afternoon tripled social interaction and dramatically decreased the number of patients taking tranquilizers. And since inhibitions lessen with drinking, even the ones that reduce our tendency toward compassion and altruism, one or two drinks can make us more likely to help others.

I find it particularly interesting that people need not actually drink alcohol to obtain its psychological benefits. Research shows that people who believe they are ingesting alcoholic beverages when they are actually drinking plain tonic water, will behave in accordance to their expectations about the effects of alcohol. So if you believe you will feel more sociable, sexually aroused, and less inhibited because of the alcohol, that is what happens even withno alcohol in your system.

If you choose not to drink alcohol, most experts agree that you shouldn't start in an effort to gain health benefits from it. And don't drink if you are pregnant. But if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or an occasional cocktail in social situations, relax and drink it to your health.

Paulette Avery is a registered nurse and a freelance writer specializing in health issues.