If you’re currently rethinking your drinking habits, you’re not alone. There is a lot of new information about wine, and much of it contradicts what researchers have told us for years. It’s not necessarily a sign that we should all sober up (though that’s not a bad idea), but it may help you evaluate your relationship with alcohol.
But how did we get here? Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, scientists reported many benefits of enjoying wine in moderation. Several studies linked light to moderate drinking with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and death. Others reported that drinking may reduce the risk of dementia, cognitive decline, and ischemic stroke. Many experts credited the benefits of wine to resveratrol, the antioxidant found in grape skins that scientists discovered has anti-inflammatory properties.
However, these studies did not prove that drinking is the secret to a long life. One common criticism is that many of the studies compared drinkers to non-drinkers. And non-drinkers often includes people who used to drink when they were younger, but now abstain. And many of those people who no longer drink do so for health reasons. Others who have never had a sip also often abstain due to a health condition. On paper, these individuals look less healthy because they are classified as “non-drinkers.” But it has little, if anything, to do with their beverage choice.
Drinkers and non-drinkers may be different in other ways, too. Those who can afford to imbibe also often exercise more often and eat healthier diets—both factors associated with better health outcomes. So does alcohol make drinkers healthier, or do drinkers tend to be healthier for other reasons? Most of this work is observational studies, and we have to remember that correlation does not equal causation.
In recent years, scientists began taking a closer look at the studies on wine and health. In 2017, a meta-analysis of 45 studies in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs said that drinking wine doesn’t appear to protect against coronary heart disease if you are 55 or younger. This April, a meta-analysis of almost 600,000 people published in the Lancet made similar conclusions. Researchers looked at alcohol consumption in current drinkers and the risk of death and cardiovascular disease. According to their data, drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol—about one five-ounce glass of wine per day—increases the risk of death for all causes.
But another paper in the Lancet, this one published in August, suggested that even the recommended moderate level of drinking (one serving a day for women) is too much. After looking at more than 700 international studies, the authors concluded, “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.”
Furthermore, some research suggests that alcohol may increase the risk of breast cancer in women. In a report published by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in May 2017, they found strong evidence that consuming alcoholic drinks increases the risk of breast cancer in pre- and post-menopausal women. Alcohol appears to raise levels of estrogen in the blood, and high estrogen levels are associated with a greater breast cancer risk.
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While researchers continue to criticize each study and debate what, if any, level of wine consumption is truly healthy for us, what are you to do? The research on wine and all alcohol continues to grow, and for every study showing a positive health benefit, you can find another study showing a negative health consequence. There are also many confounding factors often not included in the studies that affect our health, and we can’t be certain that the correlation of alcohol is equal to a longer or shorter life.
Alcohol in excess is a known carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program. And we know that drinking beyond moderation—that is, more than one serving a day for women—is linked with various health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, memory problems, and liver disease. So, if you do not currently consume alcohol, there is no reason to start drinking.
If you do enjoy alcohol, do so in moderation. One serving is five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of a spirit. Pick something you truly like, have that one serving, and stop at that. And if the information on alcohol causes you to pause and reconsider your relationship with drinking, that is a good thing. Whatever you drink or eat, it’s best to do so mindfully and enjoy both your beverage and food and your company.