Health Benefits of Red Wine and Alcohol

Health Benefits of Red Wine and Alcohol

Red wine is full of health benefits. Drink in moderation and lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Red wine, white wine, beer and liquor share most of the same health benefits. Studies show that moderate drinking will lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes while boosting your brain power in later life.

Red wine has gotten most of the attention, and most people believe that the health benefits of red wine come from antioxidants like resveratrol. But most of the benefits actually come from the alcohol. So beer, hard liquor, and white wine have most (but not all) of the same health benefits as red wine!

Drink in moderation and you’ll see these health benefits:

  • 30% decrease in your risk of a heart attack(details)
  • Almost 30% lower risk of an ischemic stroke(details)
  • Increase your good (HDL) cholesterol (details)
  • 26% lower risk of type 2 diabetes(details)
  • 23% less likely to suffer mental decline in later life(details)
  • Improve your digestive system health(details)

Unfortunately it’s not 100% good news. Even moderate drinking for women will increase the risk of breast cancer. But women can wipe out most of this risk by taking a multivitamin with folate. (details) And there are some people who should not drink at all. But for most people, there are many health benefits as long as you drink in moderation.

An Updated Twist on the French Paradox: All Beer, Wine and Liquor is Healthy

The “French Paradox” was popularized in a 1991 news broadcast by 60 Minutes in which French scientist Serge Renaud discussed the seemingly unhealthy high fat and high dairy French diet and the surprisingly low incidence of heart disease in France.

60 Minutes Episode “The French Paradox” originally aired in 1991

This paradox seemed to contradict the common wisdom that had been observed in the United States and Great Britain, where similarly high fat and high dairy diets were believed to be responsible for higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Renaud and others on the program suggested that the French’s moderate consumption of red wine might be responsible for these unexpected health benefits.

This led to many studies that linked red wine with numerous health benefits ranging from dramatic cardiovascular benefits to lower risk of diabetes to improved cognitive health. Could all these claims be true? It turns out that they are! But there is even better news.

It was initially believed that the health benefits in red wine came from antioxidants like resveratrol. But recent research has shown that it’s not anything special in the wine that provides these benefits. Previous studies linking health benefits to wine may not have accounted for lifestyle differences. For example, Duke University researchers looking at the habits of over 4,400 men and women concluded that wine drinkers tended to have healthier lifestyles. They exercised more while eating more fruits and vegetables, more fiber, less saturated fat, and less alcohol. The researchers concluded that the previously reported benefits of wine over other alcoholic beverages may be the result of differences in diet and lifestyle.

Most of the benefits come from the alcohol that’s in the wine. So you can get most of the same benefits from drinking moderate amounts of any alcohol — white wine, beer and liquor included! See our related article on Red Wine and the Resveratrol Myth

Cardiovascular Benefits of Wine, Beer, and Hard Liquor

While wine used to get all the credit, it turns out that any alcohol (in moderation!) can help improve your cardiovascular health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. In some cases the benefits are quite significant when compared to non-drinkers.

Lower Your Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke

In a 2011 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, Italian researchers analyzed the results of over 50 studies and found that people who drink in moderation dramatically reduced the risk of suffering a fatal or non-fatal cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke. They reported that wine drinkers decreased their risk by an average of 31% when compared to non-drinkers. Beer drinkers reduced their risk by an average of 42%!

That’s great news for wine and beer drinkers. But what about hard liquor? While the Italian study did not have enough data to establish a positive or negative effect, several other studies have shown that all forms of liquor have similar cardiovascular health benefits.

For example, Harvard Medical School researchers followed 21,600 people from 1982 to 2005 and concluded that moderate drinking of any alcohol led to a lower risk of heart failure. And Tulane University researchers, looking at 35 previous studies, concluded that moderate drinking of any type of alcohol decreased the risk of suffering an ischemic stroke by almost 30%. (Ischemic strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is restricted or cut off, usually due to a blood clot. Over 80% of strokes are ischemic.)

How? Alcohol Raises your HDL (Good) Cholesterol and Lowers Your LDL (Bad) Cholesterol

How does alcohol improve your cardiovascular health? It does it by raising your good (HDL) cholesterol and lowering your bad (LDL) cholesterol. One of the primary contributors to heart disease is the buildup of plaque in the walls of your arteries, caused by cholesterol in your blood. But as you may know, you have both good and bad cholesterol. LDL cholesterol in your blood contributes to the unhealthy plaque build-up. But HDL cholesterol helps prevent plaque by delivering cholesterol to your liver where it can be eliminated from your body.

Many research studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption raises your HDL and lowers your LDL cholesterol. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public health confirmed this in a meta analysis they conducted looking at the results of alcohol consumption in 42 different studies. Their findings, published in the British Medical Journal, also concluded that moderate alcohol drinkers lowered their risk of coronary heart disease by 25%.

Alcohol Reduces the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

The sedentary lifestyle led by most Americans (and residents of other first world countries) has led to a virtual epidemic of adults developing type 2 diabetes. Regular exercise and a healthy diet are the keys to avoiding diabetes. But several studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption can also help.

VU University researches in the Netherlands looked at 15 previous studies that followed over 360,000 people for an average of 12 years. Their study, published in Diabetes Care in 2005, concluded that moderate alcohol consumption reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by roughly 30%. Similar results were found in a Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health study published in 2012. In that study, Japanese researchers studied 10,631 men ages 40-55 and found that those who drank moderately 4-7 times per week had a 26% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

But note that as with most of the other benefits of alcohol, the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes was found only in regular, moderate drinkers. Many studies — such as the 10-year Hoorn Study that followed 2390 men and women in the Netherlands — have found that heavy drinking actually increases your risk. That might be because heavy drinking often leads to obesity, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

Keep Sharp: Slow Your Mental Decline

It’s well known that heavy drinking increasing your risk of dementia. However, a few studies have shown that moderate drinking may actually boost your brain power and slow your mental decline. For example, Harvard researchers looked at over 11,000 older women over a 6 year period and found that moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to show signs of mental decline compared to those who didn’t drink at all. Again, it’s important to note that these results apply to moderate drinkers only.

Probiotics in Red Wine Boost Digestive Health

Probiotics have gotten a lot of press lately. They are “friendly” bacteria that live in our digestive system, and they’re very important in maintaining a healthy digestive tract. You get them mostly from fermented foods like yogurt. And according to a small Spanish study, you can also get very healthy doses from red wine. Researchers found that men who drank about 2 glasses of wine per day for 20 days showed a significant increase in healthy probiotic bacteria in their guts. They also lowered their blood pressure.

Interestingly, the results where the same when test subjects drank wine with the alcohol removed. Those who drank gin also saw some improvements, but not nearly as significant. So, while most of the health benefits discussed apply to all forms of alcohol, this one is for red wine drinkers only.

Some Bad News: Alcohol Increases the Risk of Breast Cancer

While most of the news about alcohol is good, there is some bad news. Even moderate alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer in women. In a 2011 study, Harvard Medical School researchers followed 105,000 women from 1980 to 2008 and found that every 10 grams of daily alcohol consumption (about 1 drink) increased the risk of breast cancer by about 10%. That’s quite scary. However, there is slightly more to it.

Several studies have shown that the increased risk of breast cancer can be almost eliminated by taking 400 micrograms of folate. For example, a Harvard study published in The Journal of The National Cancer Institute found that for women who had one drink a day, folate reduced the additional breast cancer risk by 90%. Folate, also known as folic acid or Vitamin B9, is found in most multi-vitamins.

You should also note that an average woman’s risk of dying of cardiovascular disease is much higher than her risk of dying from breast cancer. So for most women, the overall health benefits of one drink per day may likely outweigh the small increase in breast cancer risk. That’s especially true if you minimize the breast cancer risk by making sure you get 400 micrograms of folate each day from a multi-vitamin or other dietary sources.

When to Avoid Wine, Beer, and Liquor

While moderate drinking has many health benefits, there are some people for whom the risks outweigh the benefits. Certainly, children and adolescents should not consume any alcohol. Also, pregnant women should avoid alcohol, as should women who might become pregnant. And, of course, avoid all forms of alcohol if you have any type of liver disease or similar alcohol-related ailments or diseases.

Naturally, you should also avoid alcohol if you may have problems with alcoholism or if you have trouble limiting yourself to moderate drinking. Remember, you only get the health benefits with moderate alcohol consumption. Excessive drinking has been shown to have many negative and dangerous health consequences.

While it should be obvious, since even moderate drinking can cause temporary mental and physical impairment, you shouldn’t drink if you are planning any activity that requires skill or coordination, such as driving, operating machinery, or any other hazardous activity. And finally, you should avoid drinking if you are taking any medication or other substances, since alcohol may create an unwanted or dangerous interaction.

To be safe, check with your doctor to make sure the benefits of moderate drinking outweigh any potential risks for your specific state of health.

Defining Moderation: It Matters How Much You Drink

All the health benefits of drinking alcohol apply only to drinking in moderation. So how many drinks is that? “Moderate drinking” is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Definition: One Alcoholic Drink
Type of Alcohol Serving Size Percent Alcohol
Moderate drinking is defined as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
Beer 12 fluid ounces
(350 ml)
Wine 12% 5 fluid ounces
(148 ml)
Liquor 1.5 fluid ounces
(44 ml)
40% (80 proof)

Most studies define one drink using the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which count one drink as 0.6 fluid ounces (18 ml) of pure alcohol. In typical drinks, that’s one beer, one glass of wine, one cocktail or one shot of liquor.

But note that if you are drinking high alcohol beers like double bock, high alcohol fortified wines like sherry or port, or high octane liquor like Bacardi 151, you’ll need to scale back your drinking. Similarly, if are enjoying lighter alcohol drinks like light beer, you can drink a little more.

If you drink more than the recommended one or two drinks per day, you quickly lose all the health benefits of alcohol and you start exposing yourself to all kinds of health risks.

When to Drink (and When Not To Drink): It Matters

It really matters when you drink. First of all, it’s important to note that moderate drinking means drinking in moderation daily or almost daily. Saving up your daily drinks to binge on the weekend does not count. In fact, that’s very detrimental to your health.

You also shouldn’t drink before a meal. Alcohol can stimulate your appetite and lower your will power to control portion size and make healthy food choices. A cocktail before dinner might lead you to order the all-you-can-eat fried shrimp and the double fudge sundae instead of a dinner salad and broiled salmon.

So, enjoy a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine with your meal or relax with a drink after dinner. But remember that there about 120 calories in a glass of wine and 90 – 100 calories in a serving of liquor. So while there are certainly health benefits, they’re not “free” when it comes to counting calories.

The Bottom Line: Cheers!

You certainly shouldn’t abandon regular exercise and a healthy diet in favor of drinking. And if you don’t enjoy drinking, there is not reason to start. But if you drink beer, wine, or liquor in moderation, you can boost your health and likely extend your life by a few years. If you enjoy red wine, you’ll get added benefits for your digestive system and my benefit from other antioxidants in wine.

Unless you have some other risk factors, if you enjoy it, you shouldn’t hesitate to have a drink (for women) or two (for men) each day. Cheers, to your health!

What are your thoughts about drinking in moderation for your health? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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