It sounds like a mixed message: Drinking alcohol may offer some health benefits, especially for your heart. On the other hand, alcohol may increase your risk of health problems and damage your heart.
So which is it? When it comes to drinking alcohol, the key is doing so only in moderation. Certainly, you don't have to drink any alcohol, and if you currently don't drink, don't start drinking for the possible health benefits. In some cases, it's safest to avoid alcohol entirely — the possible benefits don't outweigh the risks.
Here's a closer look at the connection between alcohol and your health.
Health benefits of moderate alcohol use
Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits. It may:
- Reduce your risk of developing heart disease
- Reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack
- Possibly reduce your risk of strokes, particularly ischemic strokes
- Lower your risk of gallstones
- Possibly reduce your risk of diabetes
Even so, the evidence about the possible health benefits of alcohol isn't certain, and alcohol may not benefit everyone who drinks.
Moderate alcohol use may be of most benefit only if you're an older adult or if you have existing risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol. If you're a middle-aged or younger adult, some evidence shows that even moderate alcohol use may cause more harm than good. In fact, if you're a woman and drink alcohol, talk to your doctor about taking supplemental folate to help reduce the risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol use. You can take other steps to benefit your cardiovascular health besides drinking — eating a healthy diet and exercising, for example.
Guidelines for moderate alcohol use
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if you choose to drink alcohol you do so only in moderation — up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.
Examples of one drink include:
- Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
- Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
- Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)
When to avoid alcohol use
Keep in mind that moderate use of alcohol doesn't mean that using alcohol is risk-free. For example, if you binge drink — such as having four or five drinks in the space of a few hours — you face serious health problems. Likewise if you drink and drive.
Here are other situations in which the risks of alcohol use may outweigh possible health benefits:
- You're pregnant or trying to become pregnant
- You take medications that can interact with alcohol
- You've had a previous hemorrhagic stroke
- You've been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol abuse
- You have liver or pancreatic disease
- You have heart failure or you've been told you have a weak heart or dilated cardiomyopathy
- You're planning to drive a vehicle or operate machinery
Some situations are less clear-cut. Use alcohol only with great care and after consulting your doctor if:
- You have a family history of alcoholism
- You take prescription medications for a health problem
- You use over-the-counter pain relievers or fever reducers
- You have a family history of breast cancer
- You have precancerous changes in your esophagus, larynx, pharynx or mouth
Consequences of heavy alcohol use
Although moderate alcohol use may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking — including binge drinking — has no health benefits. Excessive drinking can cause potentially serious health problems, including:
- Certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and liver
- Sudden death if you already have cardiovascular disease
- Heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) leading to heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Accidental serious injury or death
- Fetal alcohol syndrome and other health problems in an unborn child
Drink alcohol only in moderation — or not at all
The latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits. So don't feel pressured to drink alcohol. But if you do drink alcohol and you're healthy, there's probably no need to stop as long as you drink responsibly and in moderation.