ONE MINUTE we’re told that drinking alcohol in any quantity is bad for us; the next it appears that red wine is like mother’s milk and should be consumed with gay abandon. Only last week a Spanish study commissioned by the Basque Public Health Department was published, saying that men who drank up to 11 shots of spirits per day had 50 per cent less risk of heart disease. And according to a major 2003 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, drinking one to three units per day resulted in a 28 per cent reduction in risk of stroke.
As we approach the heaviest drinking period of the year, knowing what we’re drinking, and what it means for our bodies in the short and long term, is important. Most British doctors still say that moderate drinking may be beneficial, but any benefits from excess drinking are outweighed by considerable and varied costs. The Spanish study, for example, focused entirely on heart disease and totally ignored any of the other health problems associated with heavy drinking, such as liver damage.
Dr Peter Mace, assistant medical director at private health provider Bupa, says: “Moderate drinking has to be good in light of years of similar research. But for me the risks of drinking more than the recommended allowance outweigh the benefits. And the benefits of alcohol are certainly not a reason to start drinking more.”
Alcohol is thought to benefit the heart by raising levels of HDL, often known as good cholesterol, as well as increasing blood platelets that prevent clotting. But quite why it has these effects is still not known. “There’s been controversy over the health benefits of alcohol for decades,” says Dr Albert Ferrante, partner at Blossoms Inn Medical?Centre on Garlick Hill in the City. “Nobody quite knows why it’s good for the heart. But one thing that’s certain is that the other risks that come from drinking a lot negate the possible cardio benefits. Even if HDL levels are up, if that’s accompanied by liver damage you’re not going to be in good shape.”
Both doctors agree that – despite less risk of heart disease from generous booze intake – there are “lots of other problems” that arise from drinking copiously, from falling in front of trains and buses to humiliating yourself, to constant hangovers.
It takes an hour to metabolise a unit of alcohol, so five drinks (two or three units each) over the course of an evening will leave your body burdened the next day, and for heavy drinkers, it then all starts again. “If you’re drinking too much, even without realising it, you’re going to be permanently hungover,” Mace says. “There’s also the fact that the liver’s got other things to do than metabolise alcohol; such as food and other toxins.”
Ferrante says that the UK’s current guidelines are sound – no more than two to three units of alcohol a day for women and three to four units for men, with at least two or three alcohol-free days each week. “You have to stick closely to the limits,” he says. “People ignore them at their peril.”
As for letting your hair down in the run up to Christmas, it’s a question of how many hangovers you can afford, and whether you can control the risk of car crashes or other physical accidents. “Short-term drinking won’t cause long-term damage,” says Mace.
“But I think the main problem is that people underestimate how much they’re imbibing. A large glass of wine is three units, not one, for example. Everyone can get away with overdoing it once in a while, but over time, the cumulative costs will be high.”