The Alcohol Controversy: Is Drinking Good For You?

Understanding the effects of drinking alcohol on health and longevity is an old topic that constantly earns fresh attention, usually amid new studies that reveal both healthful and harmful effects from enjoying a few beverages.

So what is the healthiest code of conduct related to alcohol?

There is no universal “one size fits all” answer, but there’s enough information to help you make the right choice for yourself. Essentially, it depends on your age, gender, genetic risk for heart disease or cancer, medications you take, addiction tendencies and social support system. The simple message is that while moderate alcohol consumption carries certain health benefits, it would be unwise to ignore the associated risks — including an increased proclivity for cancer. This is especially true for women.

Reasons for some people to avoid alcohol remain blatantly obvious. It is a major source of addiction. Consuming more than seven drinks per week elevates the risk of alcohol use problems in both men and women. It also can lead to other destructive behavior, family violence and an increased number of falls in older adults. Pairing it with pregnancy, some medications or driving can be hazardous and should be avoided.

But you already know that. So if you want to drink responsibly, what constitutes moderation and how can it enhance your health?

Moderation, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. A drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. It’s important to note that studies claiming positive health benefits from “moderate drinking” included people who adhered to this definition. (It’s a long way from getting hammered!)

We asked longevity guru Dan Buettner for his thoughts on the topic. “Go ahead, have a drink,” said Buettner, author of “Blue Zones,” which examines all factors that contribute to long and healthy living. “In Sardinia, red wine is consumed every day; in Okinawa, it’s a glass of sake with friends. A daily drink can lower the incidence of heart disease and reduce both cholesterol levels and the effects of chronic inflammation. Red wine is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, which may help ward off arteriosclerosis. But the secret is moderation: Drink a glass or two a day at most; more will negate the benefits.”

recent Time Magazine report found that people who drank alcohol moderately lived longer than those who abstained entirely, supporting Buettner’s position. The actual study also said these finding were not experimental, but that other important factors deserved consideration.

In addition to increasing longevity, men 40 and older and women 50 and above can enjoy other health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Several recent studies point out that it reduces the risk of heart disease and may protect against dementia and Type 2 Diabetes. In many reviews, beer and spirits contained the same benefits as red wine.

However, there’s one detail that clouds the good news. Despite this positive effect on potential heart disease, alcohol can boost blood pressure in people diagnosed with hypertension. In these cases, abstaining from alcohol is one proactive step that could save your heart, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

2010-10-01-images2.jpegThere’s more. While heart disease and longevity usually become factors later in life, cancer can strike in the prime years. And the research in this arena is not encouraging.

“We can confidently say that even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a modestly higher risk for breast and colorectal cancer,” noted Susan Gapstur, Ph.D., of the American Cancer Society.

Cancer epidemiologist and researcher Naomi Allen of the University of Oxford, told WebMD that “there were no minimum levels of alcohol consumption that could be considered without risk.”

Some of the earliest research connecting alcohol and breast cancer came from the 90,000 Nurses’ Health Study, which began in 1980. By 1987, an article in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that women who consumed three to nine drinks each week increased their risk of getting breast cancer by 30 percent. The more they drank, the greater the threat.

Subsequent research arrived at similar conclusions, with slightly different details. In 1998, Harvard scientists published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association pooling the results of six worldwide studies that included more than 320,000 women. The paper determined that one drink a day led to a 10 percent increase in breast cancer risk. Two to five drinks a day escalated that number to 40 percent.

Researchers following the ongoing Million Women Study in the United Kingdom reported that women who drank alcohol increased their risk of cancers of the breast, liver, rectum, mouth, throat and esophagus. The study subjects consumed an average of one serving of alcohol each day. Again, the more they drank, the worse the peril. And for those who want to believe wine is always a safe choice, the analysis found that exclusive wine drinkers suffered the same risk for developing cancer as those who drank beer, spirits or a combination of alcoholic beverages.

In the end, the healthiest approach to drinking depends on your individual circumstances — and your ability to keep your consumption at a modest level. So here’s a toast to good health! And remember, please don’t drink and drive.

“Hormone Healthy Food Choices” by Jay Williams PhD

 When hormones become unbalanced, they can negatively affect our health, put us at risk for cancer and heart disease, and destroy our mood and productivity. No matter what your age, consuming the right foods is a natural and effective way to keep order in the endocrine system. 

To accomplish this, your daily meals should include:

  • Less fat and more fiber. It takes a lot of energy to digest fat. The less energy you spend on digestion, the more efficient your body becomes with its other metabolic responsibilities — like brain function, hormone production and energy level maintenance.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables. They help with the excretion of toxins. When the body makes new hormones, it needs to purge the expired ones, and fiber helps do that properly. Eat at least five portions each day, and pay particular attention to leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and baby salad greens. It’s no secret that foods like these, rich in calcium and vitamin D, can increase bone strength and improve your overall skeletal health. But new evidence shows they also help calm jangled, hormonally harassed nerves.
  • Complex carbohydrates. Whole grains are high in fiber and B vitamins, which are important for hormonal balance. In a study conducted at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, researchers reported that women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) who ate a meal high in carbohydrates (but avoided sugar and white flour) were happier and more relaxed within one hour. Women in another group who ate a high-protein meal felt angry, sad, and more agitated. Within three hours, the carbohydrate group’s blood sugar returned to normal levels, and they needed to eat again.

Based on this study, women who suffer from PMS should eat smaller, more frequent meals that include carbohydrates. The 3/500 Rule (snacks or meals of 500 calories or less every three hours) defines hormone health.

*Foods rich in essential fatty acids (think Omega 3). They have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and reduce abnormal clotting, which helps prevent endometriosis and fibroids. Eat oily fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring) three times per week, along with nuts and seeds (walnuts, flax, sunflower, pumpkin). Bonus: Omega 3 fatty acids are also good for the brain and can elevate your mood.

*Soy. It contains phytoestrogens, a mild estrogen-like compound that fits into the body’s estrogen receptors and blocks potentially negative effects — including cancer — of more powerful estrogens. They also reduce hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and other symptoms associated with menopause. The isoflavones in soy promote calcium absorption and decrease susceptibility to bone breakdown and loss. Furthermore, when estrogen is declining or fluctuating, isoflavones help regulate that unpredictable hormone, alleviating many menopausal and PMS symptoms. (Confused about soy? If you missed it, please check our previous article: The Soy Controversy)

*Beans. According to nutritionist Susan Krause, MS, RD, the isoflavones in beans may stabilize symptoms of PMS, perimenopause, or menopause, and possibly help prevent tumor formation related to breast cancer. Although soybeans have among the highest levels of isoflavones, other sources include favas, lentils, and chickpeas. And if pregnancy is in your plans, beans can give you a steady supply of folic acid — essential for normal development of the fetus.

*Filtered water. Lots of it. Stay on a hydration schedule. Because your brain is about 80 percent water, this will improve your mood and attitude, and conquer your hormone headaches.

Notice we didn’t recommend milk? The cow pumping out all of that calcium is not drinking milk or taking calcium pills. It’s eating grass! Leafy green vegetables are the most absorbable form of calcium for cowsand humans, and assist with the placement of calcium into the bone structure.

If your diet does include meat and dairy products, eat low-fat and organic versions. These come from animals that were not fed hormones, growth-enhancing antibiotics, or grain raised with synthetic pesticides (which may disrupt hormones as well). Hormones love fat, so they’re virtually swimming in whole milk. If you’re worried about keeping your endocrine system in order, don’t add to the mess by eating foods overflowing with additional hormones.

Other foods to avoid during menopause:

*Excess sugar. It can stimulate cravings and suppress the body’s ability to utilize the calcium and phosphorus needed to build bone.

*Excess fat and cholesterol. For reasons mentioned above; also, as estrogen levels plummet, cholesterol can rise.

*Alcohol. It can exacerbate the symptoms of menopause. If you are at risk for breast cancer, don’t drink at all.

*Caffeine. Research shows that PMS intensifies with the consumption of caffeine-containing beverages. In one study, women who abstained from caffeine during the PMS phase of each month resolved their symptoms completely.

*Refined and spicy foods. Along with sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, these may trigger hot flashes, mood swings, vaginal discomfort, and other negative hormonal symptoms. Maintain a food and mood diary to help you determine which ones impact you most.

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