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Bivens’ column: Balancing alcohol’s risks, benefits

By Carolyn Bivins
Extension agent

It is a fact that humans have been consuming fermented beverages for around 10,000 years. For much of that time, the pros and cons of alcohol consumption have also been up for debate. The mixed messages continue today. Is alcohol good or bad for you? The answer depends on many factors.
All people react to alcohol differently. How we react to alcohol is influenced by many factors: age, race or ethnicity, weight, fitness level, how quickly the alcohol was consumed, amount of food consumed before the alcohol, and the list continues. One thing is for certain – excessive alcohol consumption is not healthy. If we are drinking alcohol for its proposed health benefits, we must do so in moderation. So what defines “moderation” alcohol consumption? What are its benefits? What are the dangers if we drink too much?
Most studies define moderate alcohol consumption by gender: one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. What constitutes “a drink” though? This depends on what you are drinking. “A drink” is usually considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (vodka, gin, whiskey, etc.). At this level of alcohol consumption, most studies show that the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. However, it is important to remember that no guidelines recommend a person start drinking alcohol for its proposed benefits. So what are the benefits?
Moderate alcohol consumption has also been linked with beneficial changes, ranging from better sensitivity to insulin to improvements in factors that influence blood clotting.
Such changes would tend to prevent the formation of small blood clots that can block arteries in the heart, neck and brain, the ultimate cause of many heart attacks and most common kind of stroke. The benefits, however, do not stop at the heart. Studies show alcohol in moderation can lead to a person being less likely to develop gallstones and type 2 diabetes. Not to mention, a glass of alcohol with friends can be a way to relax. These stress-relieving effects can attribute to better health. Studies also show, it’s not what you drink, but how you drink that matters. Seven drinks on Friday night are not the same as drinking one drink every night of the week. While the weekly total is the same, you will not achieve the same benefits as if you were to drink one drink per day.
While this information makes it clear that moderate drinking benefits outweigh the risks, the decision to drink alcohol is a personal one. There is no indication that someone that does not drink should start simply for health reasons. Do not feel pressured to drink alcohol, but if you do drink, keep it in moderation. And as always, drink responsibly.
There are many dangers associated with heavy drinking. Not everyone can stop drinking after one drink. Persistent heavy drinking can take a toll on the body and cause many negative adverse health effects. Heavy drinking has been linked to pancreatitis, liver damage, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and even certain cancers. Additionally, alcohol’s ability to cloud one’s judgment is legendary.
Keeping the risks in mind will help you make an informed decision whether moderate alcohol consumption may be right for you. You should never feel pressured to drink alcohol. If you have any questions, make sure to talk to your healthcare provider. Now that you have these facts, please govern yourself accordingly.