Your Health Checkup: When It Comes to Wine, Take the Goldilocks Approach

Many people have been drinking more alcohol during the pandemic, but how much is too much, and is any amount beneficial?

Woman drinking wine

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ books, Bear’s Promise and Damn the Naysayers, A Doctor’s Memoir, and check out his website http://www.dougzipes.com.

Many people appear to be drinking more alcohol during this pandemic, which could be detrimental to their health.

At dinner with friends several nights ago I ordered a bottle of red wine to accompany the entrée. My neighbor, a teetotaler, asked whether the red wine was heart healthy as he’d read recently, or harmful, as his parents had raised him to believe. That launched a long discussion which soon drew in diners sitting at a table across from ours, as well as the owner of the restaurant, a longtime friend, who pulled up a chair to join us. The discussion was so spirited (pun intended), we soon drained that bottle and ordered second! Lucky for us we came to a reasonable conclusion, without which I have no doubt we would’ve ordered a third bottle.

Here’s what we decided. Red wine in moderation is probably healthy (emphasize probably) in that it reduces the risk of coronary heart disease as well as stress. A big issue is what constitutes moderation. The American Heart Association endorsed a safe alcohol consumption of no more than one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women, while the Canadian Center for Addiction and Mental Health considered low-risk alcohol consumption to be up to three drinks per day for men and two for women. A recent study halves the suggested safe amounts to less than one drink a day for men and women.

While the amount of alcohol consumption appears contentious, so do the apparent effects, both harmful and beneficial.

A new observational study using brain imaging, not yet peer reviewed, found that alcohol ingestion of any type adversely affected brain volume by reducing the amount of both grey and white matter. The authors did not present outcome data, so the actual effects of these changes on behavior and mentation, and whether the changes were long lasting, cannot be determined. Another study found that even one drink doubled the risk of developing atrial fibrillation (AF), while a third study found that alcohol increased the risk of stroke in patients with newly diagnosed AF, which was reduced by abstinence.

A separate report found that individuals with moderate alcohol intake (between one and 14 drinks per week) were less likely to have major adverse cardiovascular events, and less amygdalar activity (a brain imaging measure of stress) compared to individuals with low alcohol intake (fewer than one drink per week), or those with high alcohol intake (having more than 14 drinks per week).

I’m inclined to believe the results of this latter trial because they are consistent with many past studies that have shown a J-shaped curve outlining alcohol’s benefit/harm: too much or too little alcohol is not as good as just the right amount.

Also, it is what I want to believe because that is consistent with my own behavior!

As Goldilocks said in The Three Bears when she tasted the porridge, “Ahh, this one is just right.”

Readers will have to decide what is just right for them.

Featured image: vgstudio / Shutterstock

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