Even a little alcohol can harm your health, research shows
Recent research makes it clear that any amount of drinking alcohol is detrimental to your health.
After decades of confusing and sometimes contradictory research, the picture is becoming clearer: Even small amounts of alcohol can have health consequences.
Research published in November revealed that between 2015 and 2019, excessive alcohol use resulted in roughly 140,000 deaths per year in the United States.
About 40 percent of those deaths had acute causes, like car crashes, poisonings and homicides. But the majority were caused by chronic conditions attributed to alcohol, such as liver disease, cancer and heart disease.
When experts talk about the dire health consequences linked to excessive alcohol use, people often assume that it’s directed at individuals who have an alcohol use disorder. But the health risks from drinking can come from moderate consumption as well.
Why is alcohol so harmful?
Scientists think that the main way alcohol causes health problems is by damaging DNA. When you drink alcohol, your body metabolizes it into acetaldehyde, a chemical that is toxic to cells. Acetaldehyde both damages your DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage.
“Once your DNA is damaged, then a cell can grow out of control and create a cancer tumor,” said Marissa Esser, who leads the alcohol program at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Alcohol also creates oxidative stress, another form of DNA damage that can be particularly harmful to the cells that line blood vessels. Oxidative stress can lead to stiffened arteries, resulting in higher blood pressure and coronary artery disease.
“It fundamentally affects DNA, and that’s why it affects so many organ systems,” said Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
“Alcohol is harmful to the health starting at very low levels,” Dr. Naimi said.
Some studies have claimed that small amounts of alcohol, particularly red wine, can be beneficial. Past research suggested that alcohol raises HDL, the “good” cholesterol, and that resveratrol, an antioxidant found in grapes (and red wine), has heart-protective properties.
However, said Mariann Piano, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University, “There’s been a lot of recent evidence that has really challenged the notion of any kind of what we call a cardio-protective or healthy effect of alcohol.”
More recent research has found that even low levels of drinking slightly increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, and the risk goes up dramatically for people who drink excessively. Alcohol is also linked to an abnormal heart rhythm, known as atrial fibrillation, which raises the risk of blood clots and stroke.
Alcohol is known to be a direct cause of seven different cancers: head and neck cancers (oral cavity, pharynx and larynx), esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Research suggests there may be a link between alcohol and other cancers as well, including prostate and pancreatic cancer.
New York Times