According to recent studies, light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a 40 to 70 percent reduced risk for coronary heart disease compared to not drinking alcohol or to heavy alcohol use. Does this mean we have a green light to indulge now and then? We asked UVA Club Red clinical ambassador and cardiologist Brandy Patterson, MD, to set the record straight.
Is light to moderate alcohol consumption doctor-approved?
Now and then … yes. But it’s important that you read the fine print so to speak. When it comes to alcohol consumption, there are many things to consider. First, we have to define “light to moderate” drinking. The recommendations state that men should have no more than two “standard” drinks daily and non-pregnant women should have only one drink daily. Now your idea of a cocktail and mine may be totally different, so the size of those drinks matters. A “standard” drink may be one 12-oz. beer, 5 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of hard liquor.
What are the specific cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol use?
We have to be careful when we talk about the benefits of alcohol. It’s true studies have shown that moderate alcohol use increases HDL or good cholesterol levels, reduces inflammation, lowers plasma viscosity and increases insulin sensitivity—all of which can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. But these benefits have to be weighed carefully with the risks associated with alcohol use, including cirrhosis and cancer. This is why we aren’t advising everyone to start drinking alcohol. The risk-benefit analysis will vary from person to person.
What are the risks of over-indulging?
Heavy alcohol use and binge drinking negatively impact the heart and the body in general. Drinking more than two drinks a day is associated with a two-fold increase in high blood pressure. Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk for stroke, cancer, cirrhosis, substance abuse and depression among other things.
It sounds like there’s a fine line here.
Yes, I would say that if you don’t drink, there’s no reason to start. And if you do drink, limit your consumption to one to two drinks daily and weigh your own personal risks versus the benefits of moderate alcohol use.