It’s been called the French Paradox: French cuisine is high in saturated fats, yet the French have a lower incidence of coronary heart disease than would be expected.
In the 1980s, researchers began to look into the phenomenon and discovered that moderate consumption of alcohol actually helped to reduce the effects of saturated fats on the body. The French often consume wine with their meals.
According to Harvard University, some 100 studies have shown that moderate alcohol intake is associated with a 25 to 40 percent reduction in risk for heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism cites a number of benefits of moderate alcohol intake (according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men).
In most Western countries where chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes are the primary causes of death, studies consistently show that alcohol reduces mortality, especially among middle-aged and older people.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates some 26,000 deaths are prevented each year from the benefits attributed to moderate alcohol consumption.
So, a little alcohol is good for you. But how much is “a little?” What is the definition of “moderate?”
This is where things can get a little nebulous, says Ward Price, an addiction counselor in private practice in Asheville.
“Alcohol is a drug and there are benefits, but they differ from person to person, as does the line between moderate and too much,” Price says. “We use it when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we’re celebrating. We use it as a social lubricant.”
Since alcohol is ubiquitous in our culture, we have to be aware of the line between moderation and excess, Price says. “It’s complex. There is no simple answer.”
Moderate intake is described as one drink per day for women and two for men, because women and men metabolize alcohol differently.
So, what’s the definition of “a drink?”
According to the NIAAA, a division of the National Institutes of Health, “one” drink is 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits (distilled liquor).
And while seven drinks a week is healthy for most of us, it is not healthy to abstain for six days and consume seven drinks on Saturday night.
That, Price says, is called binge drinking, and it causes myriad problems.
The NIAAA defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men—in about 2 hours.”
According to the Buncombe County Community Health Assessment, binge drinking can cause or raise the risk of alcohol poisoning, hypertension, heart attacks, sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, sudden infant death syndrome, suicide, interpersonal violence, and motor vehicle crashes.
Even with all these possible consequences, binge drinking has increased significantly since 1995, according to the county’s report. In the most recent report (2015), 30 percent of drinkers reported binge drinking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control alcohol fact sheet, excessive drinking in the long term increases the risk of several cancers — breast, mouth and throat, liver and colon — and contributes to depression, anxiety and dementia.
In 2015, 13 people in Buncombe County died from alcohol-related mental health disorders, 19 from alcohol-related liver disease and one from alcohol poisoning.
Statewide, in 2014, there were 3,143 deaths attributable to alcohol, and one in 11 deaths among working age adults (20-64 years old) is attributed to alcohol.
Nationally, the NIAAA estimates, 88,000 people (about 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States. In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,967 deaths (31 percent of overall driving fatalities).
People who drink regularly, even in moderation, should think about the purpose of those drinks, Price says.
“If you’re having a glass of wine in the evening, look at the function of that drink,” Price says. “Is it part of a bedtime routine or is it to numb yourself from something uncomfortable?”
Price points to a number of questions people can ask to determine whether they are at risk:
• Have I had one or more DUI arrests?
• Is my tolerance increasing?
• Do I think about that drink all day?
• Am I drinking more than I was a year ago?
• Am I trying to cut back but haven’t been able to?
A yes to any of these questions should be a trigger for more self-examination, and if you think you might need help, you probably do.
Each person is different, and some people who have just one drink a day have a problem, while others can have a drink every day and not be dependent, Price says. If you’re in doubt, seek advice.