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Social Drinking -- Preventive?


The weekly investigative journalism TV program 60 Minutes recently aired a special report that claimed that social drinking was associated with a longer lifespan. At the same time, the just released 2014 World Cancer Report (WCR), issued by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded, “When it comes to cancer, no amount of alcohol is safe.” Who is right? What does the research show?
Reviews of research evidence report a strong, consistent relationship between moderate drinking (consuming 1 to 2 drinks a day) and reduction in cardiovascular disease in general and coronary artery disease in particular (1). On the basis of its extensive research, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that moderate drinkers have the greatest longevity reducing the risk of heart disease by 40 to 60% (2). This is also reflected in the policy of the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association which states, “The lowest mortality occurs in those who consume one or two drinks per day”(3). 

An analysis of close to  90,000 men in the Physicians’ Health Study over a period of 5 years found that those who consumed alcohol in moderation lived longer than those who either abstained or drank heavily (4).

Similarly, putting together 15 different studies conducted in many countries following a total of 369,862 men and women for 12 years, researchers found that moderate drinkers were found to be 30% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than abstainers and heavy drinkers. It made little difference whether they were consuming beer, wine or distilled spirits.(5)

Enlarged prostates were also less often found in those who consumed alcohol in moderation when compared to those who were abstainers. An analysis of 19 published studies covering over 120,000 men found that drinking 2 drinks a day was associated with only a 35% risk of developing benign prostate enlargement.(6)

While the body of research is large showing that moderate drinking when compared to abstaining from alcohol is associated with a reduction in the risk for heart disease, diabetes (Type 2), prostate enlargement, ischemic stroke, osteoporosis and gallbladder disease, it also shows that there is no safe level for consuming alcohol when it comes to many cancers.
Aside from the fact that alcohol provides only nutritionally empty calories (thus contributing extra calories to a society already struggling with overweight and obesity), alcohol at any amount provides at least 15 carcinogens directly related to the initiation of several cancers. Prominently among them: cancer of pharynx (oral), esophagus (food-pipe) and breast. This cancer-alcohol link has been strengthened by the finding of a dose/response relationship between alcohol consumption and these cancers. The more alcohol a person consumes, the higher the risk. And that extends to light drinking as well. There is no safe threshold value to the amount of alcohol consumed on a regular basis when it comes to these cancers. In a meta-analysis of 222 studies comprising 92,000 light drinkers and 60,000 non-drinkers with cancer, light drinking was associated with heightened risk for cancer of the pharynx, the esophagus, and the female breast. Alcohol has been shown to increase estrogen levels and the activity of insulin-like growth factor receptors which can stimulate mammary cell proliferation.

The relative risk for alcohol-related cancers depends on where ingested alcohol-contained carcinogens (among them ethanol, acetaldehyde, acrylamide, benzene, formaldehyde, aflatoxins etc) contact the tissues first. It is therefore highest at the oral cavity, and then the esophagus.

Considering the enormous harm done by the abuse of alcohol to health, life and society, the benefits associated with light drinking pale in significance and scope. According to Dr. Juergen Rehm, a contributor to the 2014 World Cancer Report, “Putting benefits and harm into perspective, the harms probably outstrip the benefits by about 10 times.”
Dr. Rehm suggests  that in a modern society with consumer rights, all alcohol products should carry a cancer risk warning label. To be helpful in making choices, the language used  should be consumer-friendly and -informative.
The use of alcohol, friend or foe? It’s a double edged sword.
Handle with care!    

References are available upon request.
Hans A. Diehl, DrHSc, MPH, FACN
Clin. Prof Prev Medicine School of Medicine
Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA 92350
Founder CHIP & Lifetyle Medicine Institute LLC
11538 Anderson St, Loma Linda, CA 92354
909-799-5523   www.CHIPhealth.com