Can drinking alcohol be part of a healthy lifestyle? It depends. While some types of alcohol can offer health benefits, it can also negatively affect your health and well-being.
Drinking’s part of the social culture engrained in many countries worldwide, so it can feel difficult to balance leading a healthy lifestyle and remaining engaged with your social circle. Luckily, there are healthier alcohol options for those who can and want to imbibe responsibly.
At its essence, alcohol’s a poison; but like most poisons, the danger’s in the dosage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend limiting alcohol intake to two drinks per day for men and one drink for women.
The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, which is produced when yeasts digest sugar in certain carb-rich foods, such as grapes (for wine) or grains (for beer and some hard liquors). When consumed, ethanol impacts nearly every part of the body ‒ especially the brain, heart, stomach, gallbladder, and liver. It influences levels of cholesterol, insulin, and inflammation as well as alters your mood, coordination, and ability to concentrate.
When it comes to drinking, individuals need to decide for themselves whether they want to consume alcohol, since doing so carries risk. Moderate alcohol use has been shown to offer some health benefits, but heavy drinking – including binge drinking – has no benefits. Heavy or high-risk drinking is defined by the Mayo Clinic as having “more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks a week, for women and for men older than age 65, and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week, for men aged 65 and younger.” Binge drinking’s defined as having four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks within two hours for men.
Excessive drinking can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:
Not only can alcohol disrupt sleep patterns and decision-making skills, but it “often interacts in potentially dangerous ways with a variety of medications, including acetaminophen, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, painkillers, and sedatives.” It also can lead to addiction, particularly for people with addictive personalities or who have a family history of alcoholism.
Alcohol’s common in social settings and can act as a sort of social lubricant, allowing drinkers to relax and feel more confident. A 2012 study found that “moderate amounts of alcohol ‒ consumed in a social setting ‒ can enhance positive emotions and social bonding and relieve negative emotions among those drinking.” Beyond that, moderate alcohol consumption can provide some health benefits.
Drinking in moderation seems to reduce insulin resistance, a marker of diabetes. Drinking alcohol with meals, Australian researchers found in another study, “may cut the rise in blood sugar by 16–37% more than water” in young, otherwise healthy adults. In fact, overall diabetes risk seems to drop with moderate alcohol intake, while heavy drinking increases the risk of developing diabetes.
Kidney stones – hard mineral and salt deposits that form inside your kidneys – can also be relieved with moderate alcohol consumption. Studies have found that not only can wine and beer reduce the risk of developing kidney stones but beer can also help pass kidney stones more easily (mostly due to its diuretic effects). It’s important to note that drinking can also cause kidney stones – for the exact reason it treats them. Kidney stones are more likely to occur when you’re dehydrated, so drinking enough water can help prevent them.
Moderate drinkers are also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or signs of serious memory problems than people who don’t drink alcohol. The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation explains that “experts aren’t sure why moderate alcohol consumption helps the brain, though it may reduce inflammation.” Inflammation’s a main cause of heart disease, stroke, and other serious ailments, and it can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Alcohol isn’t a required part of a healthy diet, but some options are better for you than others.
Red wine contains antioxidants and polyphenols, which protect your cells from damage and promote heart health, respectively. A specific polyphenol called resveratrol is thought to be the crux of red wine’s health benefits. Studies have found that resveratrol “might help prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol), and prevent blood clots.”
When it comes to choosing which wine to drink, natural wine is one option. It’s gained a following in recent years and is largely thought to be a healthier alternative to traditional wine. The grapes for natural wine are typically grown by small-scale, independent producers and handpicked on sustainable, organic farms. Natural wine’s fermented with native yeast, and no additives (like yeast nutrients or sulfites) are included in the fermentation process.
Champagne’s a sparkling white wine and comes in varieties like brut, ultra brut, dry, demi-sec, and doux. The difference between one variety and another is how much sugar is added during the fermentation process. Brut and ultra brut have nearly no sugar added, which results in a very dry flavor. The grapes used to make champagne are high in phenolic compounds, a type of antioxidant that can boost brain health and may help reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Tequila’s a hard liquor made from the blue agave plant; it’s rich in natural sugars called agavins. Research shows that agavins may function like dietary fiber, meaning that the body doesn’t digest and absorb them in the same way as it does most sugars. This means that agavins “may not affect blood glucose or contribute calories to the diet,” contributing to diabetes management and weight loss.
A 2019 study also found that agave syrups have more antioxidants than other natural sweeteners. One of these compounds, tannins, may “improve immune function by helping cells communicate to coordinate a response.”
Whiskey’s a dark alcohol made by fermenting various grains. Depending on the type of grain used and the way it’s produced, whiskey is the umbrella name for scotch, bourbon, and rye. Whiskey has high levels of polyphenols, plant-based antioxidants associated with lowering the risk of heart disease. The drink can also temporarily widen blood vessels, which may help relieve symptoms of a cold or the flu. Historically, whiskey was prescribed ‒ often mixed with honey and tea for a hot toddy ‒ to treat colds and upper respiratory infections.
Whiskey’s also high in ellagic acid, an antioxidant commonly found in berries. Although it hasn’t been researched heavily, initial studies show that ellagic acid may kill cancer cells and reduce tumor growth. The antioxidant also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Kombucha’s an ultrapopular fermented drink that has a natural alcohol content – although it’s so low that the drink isn’t categorized as an alcoholic beverage. Now manufacturers are producing hard kombucha drinks, which have alcohol content similar to that of beer or hard seltzer. Regular kombucha can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and help digestion, but it’s unknown if hard kombucha offers these same benefits. Some kombuchas have added flavorings or sugar content, so be mindful when choosing your drink.
Alcohol’s never going to be considered a key component of a healthy diet. But if you’re going to indulge, there are healthier options that you can reach for. The key to drinking alcohol is moderation and weighing any health benefits against the negative impacts, especially as they relate to your unique heath needs and concerns.
If you don’t drink, there’s no need to start. You can get similar benefits from exercise and a well-rounded diet. The social aspect of drinking addresses one aspect of primary food; gathering with friends around a few cocktails can boost mental health and strengthen relationships – both of which are essential for a healthier life.
Alcoholism and binge drinking severely affect quality of life for people suffering from them as well as for those around them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery. Anyone who suspects that they have or a loved one has an addiction to alcohol can contact the Alcoholic Anonymous helpline or use the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator.