Are There Health Benefits to Drinking Alcohol?

The alcohol in the beverages you drink at a social gathering is ethanol, or ethyl alcohol. People have enjoyed its intoxicating effects for thousands of years.

But what about the impact of alcohol on your health? Is alcohol healthy, or is it just good as an occasional treat after a long day? Although there are risks involved with consuming alcohol, there may be minor benefits as well. It’s up to you and your doctor to decide if the potential rewards are worth it.

Alcohol affects different people differently. Similar drinks may have very different amounts of alcohol. It’s important to understand how alcohol affects your body so you can find a safe, healthy balance. Recognizing your limits can protect you from the drawbacks of alcohol consumption and let you enjoy the benefits.

Nutrition Information

Since ethanol comes in so many different varieties, alcohol nutrition facts can vary greatly from drink to drink. One beer, one glass of wine, and one shot of liquor are each considered one “alcoholic beverage.” 

1 can (12 fluid ounces) of light beer contains:

  •  Calories: 103
  •  Protein: 1 gram
  •  Carbohydrates: 6 grams
  •  Sodium: 14 milligrams

1 glass (5 fluid ounces) of red wine contains:

  • Calories: 125
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 4 grams
  • Sodium: 6 milligrams

1 shot (1 fluid ounce) of 80-proof vodka contains:

  • Calories: 64
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 4 grams
  • Sodium: 6 milligrams

Beers and wines are usually standalone drinks. As for liquors, people often combine them with mixers. This means the nutritional value of a beer or other pre-prepared drink won’t vary as much as drinks that are mixed from scratch.

If you want to get some nutrients out of your cocktail, mix your alcohol with healthy options like juice rather than something sugary like soda. You won’t get many nutrients out of a serving of liquor, so mix it into a glass of orange juice rather than taking a straight shot.

Potential Health Benefits of Alcohol

A group of adults enjoying a sunny day in the yard might tell you there are lots of benefits of alcohol. Unfortunately, there is no proof that alcohol actually causes better health.

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But experts do believe there are some benefits to light to moderate alcohol consumption (up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men):

Red wine can help your heart. It contains flavonoids and antioxidants, compounds that help fight free r adicals in the body. Consuming it in moderate amounts may offer some benefits for your heart. However, you can get these same benefits from non-alcoholic foods and beverages without the side effects that come with alcohol.

It can make ischemic stroke less likely. An ischemic stroke is when blood flow to your brain is slowed because the arteries to your brain get narrow or blocked. Research suggests moderate drinking may lower your chances of an ischemic stroke because the alcohol causes your body to make less of a protein called fibrinogen, which helps blood clots form . However, if you drink too much, strokes of all types are more likely.

It could help your cholesterol. Alcohol boosts your HDL cholesterol, also known as the “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol clears out the “bad” LDL cholesterol, which can promote heart health.

These benefits are mild and only apply to light and moderate drinkers. Everyday health factors like diet and exercise can also provide these benefits, so doctors generally don’t recommend alcohol as a preventative health measure.

Potential Risks of Alcohol

No matter which type of alcoholic beverage you have, drinking too much of it can put you, and people around you, in danger.

If you have a lot of alcohol over a long period of time, several conditions become more likely, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Digestive problems
  • Liver problems
  • Certain cancers
  • Trouble thinking
  • Memory issues
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol use disorder

Binge drinking  -- when a man has five or more drinks or a woman has four or more drinks in less than 2 hours -- can lead to several problems, including:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Injury, to you or someone else
  • Violent behavior
  • Risky sexual behavior

If you're pregnant, it can also cause miscarriage, still birth, or something called a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

If you’re not sure if alcohol is the right choice for your health, you can always talk to your doctor. Everything from your family history to your gender can influence how alcohol affects you. 

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Healthier Alternatives

What if you want to enjoy those social outings with family and friends, but don't want to indulge in alcohol? There are plenty of beverage choices that can still give you that social feeling without the potential risks that a night of drinking can bring.

Whether you're out, or at home, you can get what's called a mocktail. They use things like fruit juice, sparkling water, honey, and different spices to create beverages that look and feel like cocktails, without the alcohol, and without many of the calories. You can find recipes for mocktails online.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 09, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon.

American Heart Association: “Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?”

Mayo Clinic: “Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits.”

University of Michigan: "Mocktails"

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