Just How Harmful Are A Few Drinks at Night? You Might Be Surprised!

For those of you who think a drink or two a night might be harmless, think again. While it has long been assumed that low to moderate alcohol consumption may actually be beneficial to health, newer studies suggest that the positive effects may have been overestimated in previous research (2). 

The harms of excessive drinking are well known. Alcohol in large amounts has negative effects on the liver, gallbladder, brain, heart, and digestive system. It can cause fetal defects if consumed during pregnancy. It is responsible for disturbing numbers of deaths annually related to impaired driving. It is implicated in causation of certain cancers, including those in the gastrointestinal tract, and breast (4). However, drinking below levels of obvious impairment was widely considered relatively safe.

What is Moderation?
There is little question that alcohol can be both harmful and beneficial. As with many substances, the difference between medicine and toxin is largely due to dose. A standard drink is equal to 341 mL beer (5% alcohol), a 142 mL glass of wine (12% alcohol), or a 43 mL shot of spirits (40% alcohol) (1,3). Each of these delivers about 12 – 14 g of alcohol (4). Women are advised to drink no more than 2 drinks per day, 10 per week, and 3 for special occasions (3). For men, advised limits are 3 drinks per day, 15 per week, and 4 for special occasions (3). Youth, with parental consent, are advised to limit intake to 1 – 2 standard drinks, no more than twice per week (3). 

What is Safer Consumption?
The T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University states that the overall amount of alcohol consumed in a week is less important than the pattern. Having 7 drinks on a weekend binge is considered more harmful than 1 drink per evening, on most days of the week (4). Canadian guidelines also stipulate that avoiding alcohol on some days of the week is important for both men and women (3).

The Bottom Line, for Bottom’s Up
According to Canadian guidelines, “low risk” does not equal “no risk” (3). Any alcohol intake carries some risk of harmful effects. However, recent studies are increasingly defining lower amounts of alcohol as linked to potentially positive health benefits (2,4). Harvard University advises that as with health overall, risk of alcohol intake varies individually. Each person should consider their own health status, family history, personal risk factors, and reasons for drinking. “If you don’t drink already, there’s no need to start. You can get similar benefits with exercising…or healthier eating” (4). Additionally, the latter options lead to numerous health benefits aside from moderating risk of cardiovascular disease. If you drink, drink wisely.

References:
1) Centers for Disease Control
https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

2) Chiva-Blanch, G. & Badimon, L. (2020). Benefits and risks of moderate alcohol confumption on cardiovascular disease: current findings and controversies. Nutrients, 12(1), 2020.
Published online
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7020057/

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