How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
If you participated in Dry January, the practice of cutting out alcohol for the whole month, you may be onto something. New research suggests you may also want to avoid excessive alcohol consumption year-round.
According to a report from the World Heart Federation, any amount of alcohol may be harmful to your health. The report explains that alcohol has been linked to all sorts of health problems, as well as to accidents, lost productivity and other behavioral risks such as smoking. In 2019, more than 2 million people around the world died of alcohol-related causes, accounting for more than 4% of all deaths globally.
Another sobering statistic: Alcohol and heart disease may go hand in hand. Evidence suggests that alcohol increases your risks of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in women.
A 2018 study published in the medical journal The Lancet showed that consuming even one drink a day has been associated with increased risk of stroke, heart failure, high blood pressure and other heart conditions compared to people who drink between zero and about two drinks per week.
The World Heart Foundation report recommends avoiding alcohol altogether. It outlines a number of policies that governments can adopt to encourage avoidance of alcohol, from strengthening restrictions on access to alcohol to banning alcohol advertising and enforcing rules against drinking and driving.
Isn’t drinking red wine good for your heart?
Weren’t we told that there are benefits to drinking red wine? Isn’t a glass of wine a day OK — or even good for you?
The theory that red wine has health benefits is based on a natural ingredient called resveratrol, which is found in grape skin and seeds. Resveratrol is seen as an antioxidant, with the potential to fight inflammation, microbes and some types of cancer. It may also protect heart and brain health. But studies also show the opposite: that resveratrol can also have harmful effects. These conflicting scientific findings suggest that red wine health benefits may be overstated.
Unfortunately for those of us who enjoy the occasional wine o’clock, the science just doesn’t support what we’ve been led to believe.
Conventional wisdom that drinking red wine is good for you comes from previous studies showing that people who drank moderately had the lowest rates of heart disease.
“These studies make for good headlines, but there’s so many varying factors in each one,” said Bayo Curry-Winchell, M.D., an urgent care medical director and family medicine physician. “The alcohol and substances in red wine called antioxidants could help prevent coronary artery disease — the condition that leads to heart attacks. [But] any links between red wines and fewer heart attacks haven’t been proven.”
The World Heart Federation report points to more recent studies that have called the findings that some alcohol is good for your health into question. This reversal of scientific consensus has led health authorities in several countries to scale back their recommendations for the amount of alcohol it’s safe to drink.
Alcohol risks for women
According to Curry-Winchell, any level of alcohol consumption can raise your risks of developing certain cancers (such as breast, throat and colon) and affect your brain, heart and liver. Alcohol consumption can raise your blood pressure and your cholesterol level.
Alcohol-related risks should be of particular concern for women.
“Compared with those who don’t drink or consume in moderation, women who drink heavily have a higher risk of osteoporosis, falls and hip fractures, premature menopause, infertility and miscarriages, and high blood pressure and heart disease,” Curry-Winchell said.
According to the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, women process (or metabolize) alcohol differently than men and can be more susceptible to harmful effects from alcohol.
“Women have less body water than men of similar body weight, meaning women typically have higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood after drinking equivalent amounts as their male counterparts,” Curry-Winchell said.
So if you’ve been abstaining from alcohol and are looking forward to having a few cocktails, she advises caution.
“You should always drink alcohol in moderation,” she said. “[And] despite studies you see from time to time, you should never drink alcohol to reduce your risk for heart disease.”
Finding the right balance for yourself
At the end of the day, how much alcohol is too much is a personal decision. As you consider your own comfort with the right amount of alcohol for you, if any, it may help to know that according to the Mayo Clinic, one drink a day is considered moderate drinking for women. Heavy alcohol use is defined as three drinks per day for women and binge drinking is four or more drinks, or nearly a bottle of wine, within two hours.
Curry-Winchell maintains that drinking any alcohol can still affect your health, but moving from heavy to moderate alcohol use can have positive effects on your blood pressure and lower your risks of heart disease. And since drinking a lot of alcohol can harm your liver, less alcohol can mean a healthier liver, too.
“Even small doses of alcohol can have effects on your heart, including raised blood pressure [and] increased heart rate, and can potentially cause irregular heartbeat,” Curry-Winchell said.
If you’re concerned about your heart health, you may want to consider cutting down on your favorite rosé or merlot. Your heart will thank you.