Is light drinking better than no drinking at all?

Photo by Dannie Sorum on Unsplash

I have now been sober for 23 days. I have read about the health benefits of light drinking but have also heard that it might not actually be a thing.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I decided to turn to a website I trust and do some research. Below is what I have learned from watching the top 5 videos regarding the use of alcohol.

Links to the videos will be provided at the end of the article. All videos also contain links to all of the sources referenced in the making of the videos.

The basics

I am sure that we can all agree that binge drinking and heavy drinking are harmful. But what about light to moderate drinking? Well, it is a bit of a mixed bag. For example, there is some evidence that light drinking is protective against heart disease, but it increases our risk for cancer.

It lowers the chance of getting a hemorrhagic stroke(the bleeding kind) but increases the risk of an ischemic stroke. The latter is caused by a thickening of the arteries in the neck and a build of plaque.

The first question then is, what is considered light drinking. Generally, it is said to be about one drink per day. As with most things in life, we need to ask where this evidence comes from and how the studies were done. So, let’s dig into that a little.

An example of the famous j-curve showing that people get the most benefit from light drinking not from abstaining completely.

The reason people speak about the benefits of light drinking is because of the famous j-curve, as can be seen above. This shows that people who completely abstain from alcohol are worse off than light drinkers.

Wait what? How can drinking even a little of an intoxicating, addictive, toxic, carcinogenic drug be better than not drinking any at all? We need to look a little closer at the studies that led to this graph to understand that.

We first need to understand that those who benefit are those classified as average in terms of their general health. The same is not valid for those termed health freaks. What is a health freak, you ask? According to the studies, this is someone who:

  1. Exercises for 30 minutes a day
  2. Does not smoke
  3. Eats 1–2 servings of fruit and vegetables per day

One of the benefits cited in these studies is that light drinking improves HDL cholesterol. This used to be seen as a marker for better cardiovascular health, but that is no longer the case. The actual health marker is lower levels of LDL cholesterol. Here, alcohol provides no benefit.

Suppose you look at the effects of alcohol on the thickening of the arterial walls of the carotid artery in the neck. In that case, no alcohol is better than a bit of alcohol. The same goes for calcification of the arteries. Added to this is the fact that drinking alcohol actually causes a slight increase in blood pressure. Higher blood pressure is known to be detrimental to cardiovascular health.

So what is up with this j-curve then? But wait, there is more. Studies also show that light drinking is associated with lower instances of liver cirrhosis. But, again, wait, what?!

To understand that, we need to understand reverse causation by asking the following question.

Does drinking more alcohol lead to better liver health, or does liver cirrhosis lead to less drinking?

This is a common problem in studies regarding smoking. Often people classified as non-smokers are not actually people who never smoked. These could be people who quit a week ago because of ill health. So comparing them to those still smoking is probably not a good comparison.

This is commonly known as misclassification and is just as common in studies regarding alcohol. However, when you run a study where you correct this, the j-curve disappears.

So, while light drinking could have health benefits for the average person, many adverse effects are to contend with.

A better option would be to abstain from alcohol and follow a whole food plant-based diet instead. Doing so will afford you all of the benefits of light drinking with zero adverse effects.

What about cancer?

This is where we drive the final nail in the coffin of the idea that any alcohol is beneficial. We know that 5.8% of all cancer deaths are from cancers caused by the use of alcohol. We know that alcohol use can cause cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, colorectum, liver, larynx, pancreas, prostate and cause melanoma.

If that is not enough, we also know that alcohol is known to be one of the biggest causes of breast cancer for women. Why? Simply put, all forms of alcohol are carcinogenic.

This is primarily due to a toxin produced when alcohol is detoxified in the liver. This toxin is known as acetaldehyde. Suppose you have ever felt flushed after drinking a glass of wine. It may be because you have slow acetaldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes. This means that the metabolism of acetaldehyde is slowed and causes a build-up in the body. If this is you, you should definitely not be drinking any alcohol.

Acetaldehyde is not only produced when ethanol is detoxified in the liver. It is already present when alcohol comes into contact with the saliva in your mouth. Therefore, even taking a single sip of strong alcohol could expose you to carcinogenic concentrations of acetaldehyde. Even if you spit it out! The effects of which can last as long as 10 minutes.

In conclusion

All of this evidence leads me to one conclusion. There is no amount of alcohol that is beneficial or safe. Instead, we should focus on living an active lifestyle and have a strong leaning towards a whole food plant-based diet.

I hope you found this information helpful. I certainly learned a lot from doing the research. As promised, below is a list of links to all the videos from which this information was derived.

Resources

I write about mental health, addiction, sober living, and living your best life. If you find value in my writing, consider buying me a coffee ☕️

I sincerely appreciate the work done by Dr. Greger and his team on Nutrionfacts.org. Nutrionfacts.org is a science-based nonprofit organization founded by Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, that provides free updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos with captions offered in multiple languages, blogs, and infographics. If you found this information useful, consider making a donation.

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Schalk Neethling

Schalk Neethling

I write about mental health, addiction, sober living, living your best life through an active lifestyle and a whole food plant-based diet. Psychedelic curios :)