Whiskey: Is It Good For You?

Whiskey is a dark grain alcohol made all over the world. It was first developed in medieval Scotland and Ireland. In Gaelic, its name loosely translates to “water of life.”

In 16th-century Scotland, apothecaries sold whiskey as a tonic to slow aging, cure congestion, and relieve joint pain. During American Prohibition, doctors prescribed whiskey to treat pneumonia, high blood pressure, and tuberculosis

Today, whiskey is available by different names based on its production — like single malt, scotch, bourbon, and rye. While these days it’s more likely to be listed on a bar tab than on a prescription pad, modern research has found evidence that may support some traditional claims that whiskey boosts health. 

It’s well documented, however, that high amounts of alcohol can lead to some serious health issues. Whiskey’s potential benefits are associated with its low to moderate consumption. 

Nutrition Information

A 30-milliliter serving of 100 proof whiskey contains: 

  • Calories: 123
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Whiskey is a source of: 

It also contains ellagic acid, an antioxidant found in berries. While more research is needed, studies show ellagic may kill cancer cells and reduce tumor growth. 

Potential Health Benefits of Whiskey

Whiskey contains fewer calories compared to other alcohols and has no carbohydrates or sugar. Its ellagic acid content may also reduce bodily inflammation and lower the risk of obesity

Research suggests that there are other health benefits to drinking whiskey. However, these benefits are all associated with moderate consumption — heavy drinking can lead to serious health issues.

A glass of whiskey a day may offer health benefits like:

Heart Health

Whiskey has high levels of polyphenols, plant-based antioxidants linked with lowering your risk of heart disease. The polyphenols in whiskey have been shown to decrease bad cholest erol (LDL) and increase “g ood ” cholesterol (HDL) levels, and reduce triglycerides, or fat in your blood. 

Bad cholesterol and triglycerides can clog your arteries, while good cholesterol helps to keep them clear. Maintaining healthy levels can help prevent heart disease and stroke

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Relief of Cold Symptoms

Whiskey can temporarily widen your blood vessels. In small amounts, this can help clear mucus congestion in your sinuses and chest, which lets your body better deal with sickness and infection. This effect may also relieve other symptoms of a cold or flu, like coughing or wheezing.

Immune System Support

Scientists are unsure why, but several studies link moderate alcohol consumption to improved immunity of diseases and improved responses to vaccines. Studies show lower rates of the common cold, faster removal of bacteria, and better antibody response in people who have a daily drink compared to those who don’t. However, much more research is needed to understand this effect.

Brain Health

The plant-based antioxidants in whiskey may help maintain a healthy chemical balance in your brain. Research shows small amounts of whiskey — especially aged varieties — increases our activity in the brain’s GABA neurotransmitter, responsible for things like nervous system function and memory. 

One study found that people who consumed one to six drinks weekly had a lower risk of dementia than non-drinkers. Another showed that moderate alcohol intake might reduce cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s Disease

Potential Risks of Whiskey

Whiskey’s potential health benefits are associated with low to moderate amounts. Over time, high alcohol consumption can increase your risk of chronic disease and other health issues.

Talk to your doctor to make sure alcohol is safe for you, and consider the following health risks: 

Heart Problems

Whiskey's heart benefits come with small doses. Heavy alcohol use can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.  

Mental and Cognitive Health

While low amounts may support brain health, in excess, studies show alcohol can disrupt how memories form. Over time, this can lead to cognitive decline. 

Heavy alcohol use is also linked to depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence.  

Liver Damage

Because your liver breaks down alcohol in your body, heavy drinking can lead to liver disease. High amounts of alcohol cause fatty deposits in your liver and scarring, which can eventually cause liver failure.

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Cancer Risk

Studies show alcohol can increase your cancer risk, especially for cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, pancreas, and breast.

Immune System Function

High amounts of alcohol can weaken your immune system, reducing your body’s ability to fight off infection and raising your risk of chronic diseases.

Pregnancy Concerns

Research shows that any amount of alcohol can cause problems with a baby’s growth during pregnancy. It also increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Healthier Alternatives

While whiskey contains many health-boosting antioxidants, other foods — like fruits and vegetables — have similar or higher levels, but with more nutrition and fewer health risks. 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 22, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Advances in Pharmacology: "Modulation of Ionotropic GABA Receptors by Natural Products of Plant Origin."

Alcohol: "Alcohol and Airways Function in Health and Disease."

Alcohol Problems and Solutions: “Liquor in the 16th century: History of Distilled Spirits Timeline.”

Cancer Biology & Medicine: "Research progress on the anticarcinogenic actions and mechanisms of ellagic acid."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Alcohol and Cancer."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Alcohol Use and Your Health."

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon: "Whiskey."

Expert Review of Vaccines: "Could moderate alcohol intake be recommended to improve vaccine responses?"

Harvard Medical School: “Experts say no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.”

Journal of Food Science: "Reactive oxygen scavenging activity of matured whiskey and its active polyphenols."

Journal of the American Medical Association: "Prospective study of alcohol consumption and risk of dementia in older adults."

Mayo Clinic: "High cholesterol."

National Health Service: "Alcohol-related liver disease."

Neuron: “Alcohol Activates Scabrous-Notch to Influence Associated Memories."

Polyphenols in Human Health and Disease: "Chapter 80 - Role of Gallic Acid in Cardiovascular Disorders."

Scotch Whisky Association: “Story of Scotch.”

University of Copenhagen: "Alcohol consumption and mortality in patients with mild Alzheimer's disease: a prospective cohort study."

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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