Should You Avoid All Alcohol? This is what the experts think

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Some experts say there is no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to your health. Anchiy/Getty Images
  • According to a recent study by a group of scientists from the University of Oxford in England, there is no safe dose for alcohol consumption.
  • Does everyone really need to stop drinking altogether to stay healthy?
  • We asked experts for their opinion on an occasional drink.

Is alcohol good for you or bad? Does it depend on the quantity?

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According to a recent study by a group of scientists from the University of Oxford in England, there is no safe dose for alcohol consumption.

The observational study looked at data from more than 25,000 middle-aged adults. The study found that moderate consumption is more closely associated with adverse effects on the brain than previously known. They found that alcohol was negatively associated with the global volume of gray matter in the brain. Also, individuals with co-morbidities such as high blood pressure and a high BMI, or those who drink a lot, may be more susceptible to these side effects.

For decades, doctors have described moderate drinking β€” up to one drink a day for women and two a day for men β€” as low risk and perhaps even good for health.

But that view seems to be shifting. Last year, an expert advisory committee for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 recommended to lower the daily limit to one drink for men. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.

Experts are divided on the benefits of alcohol, but they are clear on the harms of drinking too much. Binge drinking may increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and congestive heart failure. Experts also agree that alcohol is a proven cause of several cancers, including breast and liver cancer.

β€œAlcohol is associated with dementia. Even moderate intake can affect brain dementia,” said Kenechukwu Mazue, a nuclear cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “There’s really no safe level.”

While Mazue has seen studies suggesting wine may have health benefits, he advises patients to stay within limits set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“For those who don’t drink, I’m not asking them to start” because of the potential for alcohol dependence.

Shivendra Shukla, PhD, the Margaret Proctor Mulligan professor of medical pharmacology and physiology at the University of Missouri at Columbia, warns that even a small amount of alcohol can be harmful.

Shukla has spent the past 25 years researching binge drinking and chronic drinking.

“Alcohol consumption in any amount is bad,” Shukla said. Alcohol has a domino effect. Alcohol is a very mysterious chemical. Once in the body, it has multiple pathways through which it can exert harmful effects. It’s like a cluster bomb. The consequences can be very damaging.”

dr. Jeanette Tetrault, a professor of medicine and addiction specialist at the Yale School of Medicine, takes a more measured look at alcohol use.

“We know there are negative health effects associated with alcohol consumption,” she said. β€œWe know there are situations where alcohol use can have negative health effects, including for populations such as pregnant women and adolescents. Our coverage as providers should be to look at individual circumstances and assess the risks and health effects of individuals. Abstinence alone will not work. We have seen such public health campaigns fail in the past.”

A message that alcohol is bad and should be avoided at all costs can lead to the loss of a clinical relationship between health care providers and patients, she said.

dr. Patricia Molina, professor and chief of the Department of Physiology at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, shares a similar view. Yes, alcohol consumption in certain populations β€” such as those with chronic illnesses β€” should be discouraged, said Molina, a physician and past president of the American Physiological Society.

“The message should be alcohol consumption in moderation,” Molina said. β€œThe consumption pattern can have a major impact on health. Talk to a doctor if you have a chronic illness.”

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