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Blood Pressure and Alcohol: Should You or Shouldn't You?

How drinking affects your health

Alcohol's Advantages continued...

In fact, moderate drinking can increase "good cholesterol" levels by as much as 20%, if it's accompanied by a healthy diet and regular physical activity, says Harvard researcher Eric Rimm, DrS.

That's similar to the improvement you might see by taking cholesterol medication or running a half-marathon, Rimm says. (He's quick to point out that exercise has many other health benefits and that alcohol should never replace exercise.)

Research has also suggested that moderate drinking can increase insulin sensitivity, which can reduce the risk of diabetes, among other things. But the empty calories in alcohol can be a problem, as there is a link between type 2 diabetes and excess weight.

Rimm, who has reviewed several large studies, has found a delicate balance between the risks and benefits of alcohol and its impact on diabetes. However, he says, "there appears to be a reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes in adults who consume moderate amounts of alcohol."

Recent research also suggests that women who enjoy a little alcohol may be more likely to keep their minds sharp as they age.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 evaluated the mental abilities of 12,480 women aged 70-81. The researchers found that moderate drinkers had a 23% reduced risk of mental decline compared with nondrinkers.

What Type, How Much, and When?

According to the experts, it doesn't make too much difference whether you prefer wine, beer, or spirits.

"The research evidence points to ethanol -- or the alcohol component -- of beer, wine, or spirits as the substance that can help lower cholesterol levels, increase HDL (good cholesterol), and improve insulin sensitivity in overweight individuals," Rimm says.

It's how much you drink that really matters. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association define moderate drinking as one drink for women and two for men per day -- not averaged over the week. (One drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits such as vodka.)

When you drink is also important, says Alice Lichtenstein, DrS, a professor at Tufts University. If you do consume alcohol, it's best to have it with meals, she says.

Some studies have suggested that drinking alcohol without eating raises the chance of developing high blood pressure.

Also, "alcohol can stimulate the appetite, so it is better to drink it with food," says Arthur Agatston, MD, a cardiologist and author of the popular book The South Beach Diet. "When alcohol is mixed with food, it can slow the stomach emptying time and potentially decrease the amount of food consumed at the meal."

And what about people who don't drink at all? The experts agree that, though alcohol has some health benefits, it's not a good idea to start drinking if you don't already.

The new U.S. dietary guidelines point out that there are many ways to reduce the risk of chronic diseases besides moderate drinking, including:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising
  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

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