Alcohol consumption: Are there health benefits?

Alcohol consumption: Are there health benefits?
By Simon R. Downes

Alcohol consumption is an accepted form of relaxation and socialization in our modernized world. While countless studies have documented the negative effects of alcohol, there has been some debate as to whether there are any positive effects. This (short) paper will address this question by first looking at alcohol and its physiological effects, and then looking at what studies have investigated and stated positive or negative effects of alcohol consumption. The purpose of this paper is to come to a conclusion, based on the evidence, whether there are any positive effects of drinking alcohol.
Most of us as children can remember our parents drinking alcohol and telling us that we are not yet old enough to drink. Yet as children, we may have wondered why parents do drink alcohol in the first place, and whether it is one of those things that is ‘good for you’. Alcohol does not taste good to children. It makes one wonder why then, we grow to like the taste of alcohol, its effects, and routinely partake in its consumption. Is it because we are told that a glass a day may actually be good for us, or is it simply because it helps us to relax? While the numbing effects of alcohol have been well documented, there is not a great deal of evidence that alcohol is good for you.

Simply stated, alcohol in the brain interferes with communication between brain cells. This happens as a result of disruption of cell receptors. The excitatory nerve pathway is suppressed while the inhibitor nerve pathway is increased. Some studies have shown that continued abuse of alcohol results in a smaller or malformed brain (Rosenbloom, et al. 1995; Pfefferbaum, et al, 1997) although the brain is said to return to near normal function with disuse (Parsons et al, 1987). One of the worst cases of damage would be Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome which can cause impaired memory and vision changes.

Many have refuted the claim that alcohol kills brain cells (see O’ Connor, 1994). For example, Dlugos and Pentney, 1997 report that while alcohol use results in loss of synapses, and dendritic regression, functioning restores after recovery. It is more correct to say that while neurons are not rendered completely inactive, the dendrites of nerve cells which transport information between other nerve cells and tissues are severely damaged over time, and although the damage is mostly reversible, with long-term abuse, the change in the basic structure of the neuron (dendrites) is permanent (See Pentney, RJ ).

But what of its positive effects? One often hears that a daily glass or two of red wine is not only safe, but healthy. In general, research articles report that moderate drinkers are healthier than heavy drinkers or abstainers, having fewer heart attacks and strokes (for recommendations on alcohol consumption and coronary disease see Moore & Pearson, 1986)

Rabin, 2009 says that while many studies have shown that casual drinkers also have a lower rate of heart decease, diabetes and dementia, no study has shown an actual causal relation, pointing to the conclusion, simply, that healthy people tend to drink less alcohol, not that this makes them healthy. The article also points out that the American Heart association has not asked people to start drinking moderately in order to be protected from heart disease, although the American dietary guidelines do say that “alcohol may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation”. Another key question the article points out is whether there is a fundamental difference between abstainers and moderate drinkers, and if there is a difference, whether it is this that actually causes them to live longer.

Discussion and Conclusions
We have seen that there are conflicting views regarding whether alcohol taken in moderation has health benefits, although some of the above evidence seems to point towards a reasonable conclusion that moderate drinkers are not having more heart attacks as a result of their drinking (suggesting a causal link between moderate drinking and lower incidence of heart disease). Klatsky and Friedman, 1981, for example showed that patients at Kaiser Permanente who were moderate drinkers were healthier, although this does not prove that moderate drinking makes people healthier.

Considering that there still has not been any study proving without any doubt that alcohol makes a person more healthy (i.e., with all parameters and variables controlled for), I would be cautious to say that dinking is healthy. The best this author can do is to say that there has been a great deal of evidence showing that moderate drinking may be safe, and that there has been some correlation between moderate drinking and a lower incidence of heart disease. It is clear that more research is necessary in order to more clearly define the effects of alcohol

Dlugos, CA and Pentney, RJ. (1997). Morphometric evidence that the total number of synapses on Purkinje neurons of old F344 rats is reduced after long-term ethanol treatment and restored to control levels after recovery. Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire) 32 (2), 161-72

Klatsky, A., Friedman, G., and Siegelaub, A. (1981). Alcohol and mortality: ten-year Kaiser Permanente experience. Annals of Internal Medicine, 95(2), 139-145.

Parsons, O. A., Butters, N. and Nathan, P. E. (1987) Neuropsychology of Alcoholism: Implications for Diagnosis and Treatment. Guilford Press, New York.

Pentney, RJ. (1982) Quantitative effects of ethanol on Purkinje cell dendritic tree. Brain Research. 249:397-401

Pfefferbaum A, Sullivan EV, Mathalon DH, Lim KO (1997). Frontal lobe volume loss observed with MRI in older chronic alcoholics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research , 21(3), 521-529.

Rabin, R, (2009). Alcohol’s good for you? Some scientists doubt it. New York Times, Online Edition, June 15

Rosenbloom, M.J.; Pfefferbaum, A.; and Sullivan, E.V. (1995) Structural brain alterations associated with alcoholism. Alcohol Health Res World 19(4):266-272.

Moore, R., and Pearson, T. (1986) Moderate alcohol consumption and coronary artery disease. Medicine, 65 (4), 242-267.

O’Connor, A. (1994). The claim: Alcohol kills brain cells. New York Times, November 23, 1994.

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