TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK! THAT IS THE QUESTION.
Is drinking alcohol good for my brain?
I know this question has been haunting you. Fortunately, I just came across a terrific article from Rush University that provides the most thorough response I have seen on the topic. The article was written by, Pablo Quintana MD, an internal medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Quintana answers a lot of questions, but also raises others that still need to be resolved.
The good news is that drinking in moderation does appear to promote brain health. But, before we get to the benefits of moderate drinking, we should probably review the dreadful consequences of excessive drinking.
What are the negative effects of consuming too much alcohol?
Cancer – Yup! Excessive alcohol intake has been linked to cancer of the liver, as you might expect. But excessive alcohol intake is also associated with increased risk for esophageal cancers and gastrointestinal cancers. Bummer. Oh, and excessive drinking is associated with liver disease. Duh! What happens, apparently, is that excessive alcohol in the system causes damage to cells in the body. When the body tries to repair the cells the process can lead to mutations of the cell’s DNA. Mutations are risky. They open the door to unchecked duplication of cells, which is the hallmark of cancer.
Diabetes – Alcohol is a carbohydrate. It can affect blood sugar levels in the body. People with diabetes who drink too much risk triggering insulin shock.
Heart Failure & Brain Starvation – Excessive drinking weakens the heart muscles, which prevents the heart from pumping blood properly, leading to conditions like congestive heart failure. Quintana doesn’t mention this, but there is growing evidence that one cause of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is brain starvation, the reduction of the fuels the brain needs to operate well. Less blood flow means less fuel to the brain.
Aging – Curses! Excessive drinking when older can contribute to vitamin B1 deficiency, which causes impairment to memory and vision. So, heavy drinking could contribute to dementia. And, of course, getting plastered increases the risk of falls, which lead to broken bones and broken hips, which leads to reduced activity or hospitalization, which leads to . . . ugh! It’s not a pretty scenario.
So, you get the picture! Excessive drinking is bad for your health in general and for brain health in particular. So, what does excessive drinking mean? How much is too much?
Excessive Drinking - It turns out that there are a number of factors that need to be considered. In addition to the quantity you drink, your gender seems to matter, as does the kind of alcohol you consume and also what you mix with your drinking.
Quantity - So, what do “in moderation” and “excessive” mean? In the U.S., moderate drinking means two drinks a day for men and one drink for women. Heavy drinking is more than 14 or more drinks a week for a man and more than seven a week for a women.
Gender - How come women can’t drink as much as men? The lower standard for women rests on the assumption that women as smaller than men. Women generally weigh less, have smaller body composition with less water and, therefore, don’t handle the alcohol as well.
Alcohol Content – Okay a max of one or two drinks, but what kind of drinks? You need to know the alcohol content of your drinks. Twelve ounces of beer, for example, has an alcohol content of about 5%, although some craft beers can go as high as 10%.
Compare your 12 ounces of beer to 5 ounces of wine, which has about 12% alcohol. Woops. Does that mean that one glass of wine can have about the same alcohol content as two glasses of beer? One point five (1.5) ounces of distilled spirits contains about 40% alcohol.
Someone help me with the math. Is 5% alcohol in 12 ounces of beer equivalent to 40% alcohol in 1.5 ounces of whiskey? Is drinking 2-3 beers equivalent to drinking one glass of wine?
Aha! Google to the rescue! According to the National Consumer League. Each of those portions of beer (12 oz.), wine (5 oz.) and distilled liquors (1.5 oz.) have the same amount of alcohol. So those portions represent one drink.
Alcohol Mixers - Syrupy mixers added to drinks increase the empty calories and the sugar you are ingesting. All of us need to avoid adding sugar to our diets, but avoiding sugar is particularly critical for folks who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Don’t mix alcohol and energy drinks. (I have to admit that this would never have occurred to me.) The caffeine in the energy drinks counters the depressant effects of the alcohol, so drinkers don’t realize how much the alcohol is affecting them and are more likely to drive while impaired.
Good news – Okay. Time for the good news! Here’s are the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption that Quintana reported.
Cardiovascular Health - As you have probably heard, what is good for your heart is good for your brain. Well, there is some evidence that alcohol (in moderation) reduces the risk of coronary artery disease. Quinatana is quick to point out, however, that alcohol should not be seen as a substitute for other healthy behaviors that reduce coronary risk factors. You still have to exercise, eat healthy food and quit smoking. Then you can have a drink.
Red Wine - Drinking moderate amounts of red wine has been shown to improve cardiovascular health. But, there’s more. Red wine also increases levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL, or high density lipoproteins). High levels of HDLs may help prevent blood clots and, thereby, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Heart attacks and strokes, by the way, are bad for your brain. Red wine contains resveratrol, which has antioxidant properties and helps the body fight off pathogens.
White Wine - The Rush Article doesn’t mention white wines, but WebMD says that white wine is chock full of antioxidants and flavinoids. The say that the antioxidant content of European white wines is equivalent to that of olive oil and are just as effective as red wines at promoting healthy hearts.
Bone Health & Beer – I love these studies. According to studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and Osteoporosis International, moderate beer drinkers were 38% less likely to have osteoporosis. Further, those who indulged in a brew or two were 20% less likely to have hip fractures than abstainers. I’ll drink to that! The mechanism for these benefits may be the dietary silicon found in beer, which according to Quintana “plays a role in the growth and development of both bone and connective tissue.”
A beer a day may also help manage cholesterol levels. In a recent study, moderate beer consumption seemed to slow the decrease of HDL cholesterol over time. Heavy beer consumption, on the other hand, had the opposite effect, erasing the benefits of HDL.
The Bottom Line – Moderation, moderation, moderation! If you don’t drink, there is no compelling reason to start. If you drink in moderation, feel good about it and make sure you keep the quantity of alcohol you drink in check. If you drink too much, it would behoove you to develop a brain health action plan (what we call Mindramping Action Plans or MAPS) to be more mindful about how much you drink. Develop strategies to limit your intake to two drinks per day.