In 1948 researchers began a study called the Framingham Heart Study, which looked at the effects of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health.
The study, which is ongoing, very early in the course suggested that moderate alcohol consumption, defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, may be cardioprotective.
That is, compared to non-drinkers, those who drink moderately have a relatively lower risk of suffering from coronary artery disease (CAD), read ‘heart attacks’.
The idea that a moderate amount of alcohol is good for health somehow caught on.
However, what remained hidden from the public at large, was that the same study showed that even at lower levels of drinking, women run an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
One of the two Indian epidemiological studies has shown that light to moderate alcohol intake may have a lower risk for stroke and cardiovascular accidents in men, but not in women.
Researchers have found flaws in such studies for not using appropriate statistical methods, thus arriving at conclusions that probably hide vital facts.
One expert, Professor Richard Saitz of Boston University School of Medicine, says:
"The totality of the literature on this subject suggests that alcohol in low amounts is carcinogenic, and it is unlikely to lower the risk of heart disease or death,”
One Standard Drink Per Day: To Take Or Not to Take?
Several later studies have thrown up some very interesting observations.
A new study from the United Kingdom suggests that even 'one standard drink' per day, (standard drink in UK is equivalent to 8 grams of alcohol, in the US it is 14 g of alcohol, while in India it is taken as 10 grams of alcohol), brings about changes in the brain. Increasing drinking from one unit per day to two units per day brings about changes in the brain of two years of ageing.
It has been hypothesised in another study from University of Oxford that alcohol consumption leads to iron accumulation in brain which probably explains why even moderate drinking is linked to a decline in cognitive function.
The cardioprotective effect of alcohol is thought to be partly mediated by decreased stress signalling in the brain, as this benefit was most pronounced among people with a history of anxiety, the latter being one of the factors associated with cardiovascular disease.
Beyond the Headlines
Author of a very recent large study including 53,000 subjects published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, Ahmed Tawakol says "There is no safe level of alcohol consumption."
There is a lot of misinformation prevalent in general public, some from the alcohol industry itself. This was aptly brought out by a survey in 2021 by The French National Cancer Institute.
The authors of the report state that the negative effects of alcohol on health seem poorly understood. Almost one-fourth of the respondents in this survey think that "in terms of decreasing your risk of cancer, it's better to drink a little wine than to drink no wine at all."
However, according to the scientific literature, alcohol is the second-biggest cause of cancer worldwide.
But, Here Are Some Points to Remember
The bottom line is the following collated guidance developed by various scientific expert panels and social bodies.
Alcohol is more harmful than was previously thought. For certain, no one should start drinking for health reasons, and the safest amounts, as with any carcinogen, are the lowest amounts or none.
Being a teetotaller has its benefits, such as better health and better sleep, and it's the only safe option during pregnancy.
To be fair, consuming one or two standard drinks weekly is unlikely to have alcohol-related consequences.
Three to six standard drinks per week raise the risk of developing breast, colon, and other cancers.
Seven or more increase the risk of cardiovascular adverse events (heart disease or stroke).
Each additional drink "radically increases" the risk of these health consequences.
Beyond six drinks, the risk of developing irreversible Chronic Liver Disease increases manyfold.
(Dr Ashwini Setya is the Adjunct Professor in Gastroenterology, ESIC Medical College, Faridabad, and Senior Consultant with Medanta Institute of Digestive & Hepatobiliary Sciences, New Delhi. Dr Setya is also an advisor and consultant in Medical Law and Ethics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)