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A little wine for thy stomach's sake?

St. Paul advised his protege, Timothy, to use wine in moderation for whatever his stomach problem might have been, and the conventional wisdom through the ages has been that the moderate intake of alcoholic beverages is good for one's health.

Regardless of one's moral stand on the issue, there is general agreement that the consumption of any amount of alcohol in the hours before getting behind the wheel of a vehicle is excessive and constitutes abuse. The extent of alcohol abuse in the United States tends to support the position that abstinence is the only healthful answer to the question of alcohol consumption. Prohibition taught us, however, that abstinence cannot be forced upon humankind.

The fact is, data from many scientific studies show a clear pattern of lower risk of death among moderate drinkers, versus those who drink excessively and those who totally abstain. The clearest evidence of the protective effect of alcohol is seen in the studies on coronary heart disease. These studies report that alcohol lowers LDL and raises HDL cholesterol, decreases formation of blood clots in the arteries, increases coronary blood flow, and increases estrogen levels.

It is known that the risk of cirrhosis, some cancers, and certain other diseases increases with alcohol consumption. However, the effect of these diseases on overall mortality rates is more than offset by the lowered mortality from coronary heart disease with low to moderate use of alcohol.

None of the foregoing, however, demands a recommendation that everyone should drink in moderation. Because of individual differences in tolerance to alcohol, what is moderate for one person may be excessive for another. For those with a history of alcohol or other type of drug abuse, there is no "moderate" use--they must abstain altogether.

The American Council on Science and Health defines "moderate drinking" as one to two drinks a day. A "drink" is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4-5 ounces of table wine, or 1.25 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

It is possible that some alcoholic beverages are more healthful than others because of ingredients other than alcohol. In cultures in which wine is the predominant beverage, there seems to be lower risk of coronary heart disease than in those in which beer or spirits are the primary source of alcohol, for example. Resveratol, a naturally occurring fungicide present in many plants, including wine grapes, has recently received attention in animal studies.

There are still many questions to be answered. For now, all that accurately can be said is that the consumption of small to moderate alcohol amounts is associated with prolongation of life, while the consumption of large amounts tends to shorten life. Genetics probably affects longevity most, but overall lifestyle certainly plays a role. Diet, smoking habits, physical activity, seat belt use, etc., have a distinct influence on duration of life, as well as its quality.
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Title Annotation:alcohol use for health reasons
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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