No More Alcohol?
I’ve read conflicting information about the research concluding there’s no safe amount of alcohol. Is moderate drinking really harmful?
Andrew Weil, M.D. | November 6, 2018
The report you refer to has received a lot of publicity – not surprising given its conclusion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Strictly speaking, that may be true – the researchers determined (after analyzing 694 sources of data on alcohol consumption from 195 countries, in addition to 592 studies of the health risks drinking poses) that the more alcohol you consume, the higher the risks to health. That’s not a very controversial finding, but results also showed that even one daily drink could be harmful. While the risk is extremely small, it isn’t zero. The only way to avoid it would be not to drink at all.
Overall, the researchers found that per 100,000 people, one drink a day over the course of a year poses a very small increased risk of alcohol-related health problems. For every 100,000 people who don’t drink alcohol, 914 can expect to develop one of the 23 health problems investigated. For those who have one drink daily, the health risk rises – slightly – to 918 per 100,000 people. It jumps to 977 per 100,000 for those who have two drinks per day. The 23 health problems include suicide, tuberculosis, liver cirrhosis, cardiovascular disease and eight different types of cancer, as well as transportation-related injuries and other accidents.
While the risks posed by a daily drink or two are small, there is no question of the toll alcohol takes in human life. The investigation found that in 2016 it was involved in nearly three million deaths worldwide and that overall among people between the ages of 15 and 49, consuming alcohol was the most common risk factor for death and disability.
The researchers reported that in 2016, 25 percent of women and 39 percent of men were drinkers – that adds up to about 2.4 billion people worldwide. Women consumed an average of 0.73 drinks a day, while men had 1.7. The research also showed that while rates of alcohol consumption vary widely by country, in general the higher a country’s income level, the greater the prevalence of drinking.
The research was observational in nature – that is, the investigators reviewed information that already had been gathered to elicit the risks of 23 health problems linked to drinking alcohol. But because of the nature of the studies analyzed the researchers were unable to explore factors other than alcohol that could have affected the health outcomes, such as smoking or poverty.
This was the second large analysis of alcohol consumption published in 2018. The earlier one, from the UK’s University of Cambridge, concluded that more than one drink a day may be too much. Worse, exceeding recommended UK limits of five to six pints of beer or six to seven glasses of wine per week, regardless of whether you’re male or female, was linked to a 14 percent higher risk of stroke, a nine percent higher risk of heart failure, a 24 percent higher risk of fatal hypertensive disease, and a 15 percent higher risk of fatal aortic aneurysm. The report also found reduced life expectancy of one to two years for a 40-year old who has 10 or more drinks per week and a loss of four to five years for those who imbibe 18 or more drinks weekly.
In my view, the best way to protect yourself from the hazards of alcohol is not to use it every day. People who drink wine with dinner every night, or have a beer every day, or a daily mixed drink or two after work should try, instead, to give themselves two or three alcohol-free days a week.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
GBD 2016 Alcohol Collaborators. “Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016.” The Lancet, August 23, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31310-2