Shall We Raise A Toast To Your Health?

Paul Harter Paul Harter
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Macmillan Cancer Support, a great charity, is sponsoring “Go Sober for October”. You take a month off alcohol and your friends sponsor you. You raise money for Macmillan and your body gets a break from the booze.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a month of sobriety, unless it’s just an excuse for eleven months of heavy drinking. People generally accept that excessive alcohol consumption is bad for your health in countless ways and, over time, could lead to an early death. The far more interesting question for most people is whether drinking in moderation is bad or good for your health. The answer is complex and depends in part on your personal circumstances and characteristics. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s call moderation one or two units of alcohol two to five times a week.

On the minus side of the equation:

Even in moderation, alcohol interferes with your sleep patterns. Alcohol is a sedative. It has a gradual effect beginning with the sedation of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part of the brain that controls impulses and restrains behaviour. So initially alcohol lessens our inhibitions, as a result of which we may feel energised. As time passes, alcohol will sedate other parts of the brain and eventually make us feel sleepy. After we fall asleep, alcohol fragments sleep and as a result of this we feel less rested the next day. Alcohol also delays the onset of REM sleep, which we need for memory and knowledge assimilation. Getting sufficient quality sleep is an often overlooked cornerstone of health.1

Alcohol, even in moderation, impairs muscle protein synthesis. In other words, alcohol negatively impacts the process by which our body repairs and builds muscle following adequate exercise. People who want to gain muscle or even tone up their bodies may want to take note. Here, we note that many of the studies involved quantities larger than our definition of moderate. Based on existing studies, the occasional glass of wine should not impair muscle repair and building in a meaningful way for most people.

Alcohol also negatively impacts hormones. The more alcohol consumed, the greater the impact. It increases the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol. It increases markers of inflammation in the body. It decreases the production of testosterone. Here again, however, drinking in moderation (as we defined it) should not negatively impact hormones in a meaningful way for most people.

Alcohol is highly calorific and contains no nutrition. Alcohol has seven calories per gram – compared to protein, carbohydrates and fat, which have four, four and nine calories per gram respectively. If you are trying to lose weight, the calories in alcohol obviously “count”. Alcohol is often referred to as “empty calories”. It provides none of the vitamins and minerals that your body requires to be healthy and function optimally.


On the plus side of the equation:

Moderate alcohol consumption may reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases. As you know, strokes and heart attacks are among the biggest causes of premature death. Studies have shown that consumption of 30 grams of alcohol per day improves health markers that would result in a reduction of the risk of coronary heart disease by 24.7%. More specifically, it increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind).2 30 grams of alcohol is 300 millilitres of wine (that is 12.5% alcohol). At 700 millilitres, the health benefits disappear and you head into negative impact territory.3

Moderate drinking can help some people destress. Stress is a major contributor to the ageing process and the risk of contracting many age related diseases. Also, people who drink moderately may tend to socialise with friends more than people who do not. There is at least a strong association between socialisation and positive health outcomes.

And if you are trying to lose weight, the calories in alcohol are no better or worse than the calories in food when it comes to your total calorie intake. You can still maintain a calorie deficit and lose weight while drinking moderately

Just remember that the calories from alcohol count. Also, there is evidence that dieters who cut out entirely food or drink that they love tend to adhere less well to diets than people who allow themselves the occasional treats. In other words, total abstention for many people results in less weight loss (not more).

Be mindful that we are talking about the calories in the alcohol itself. Most alcoholic beverages contain calories from other sources (such as the sugar in mixers or fruit juices, or the ingredients used to make beer and wine). A single measure of gin, plus slimline tonic, contains 56 calories. A pint of Stella Artois contains 227 calories. If you’re drinking while dieting, you may want to choose wisely.


Going Sober

So, as you see, the choice between drinking in moderation or not drinking at all is nuanced and depends on your personal circumstances and preferences, as well as your personal assessment of the pluses and minuses. That said, a month of sobriety should do you no harm - if you’re up for the challenge...

If you do take a month off, make sure you have an exit strategy. It’s a good time to think about your relationship with alcohol and whether you would like to change any aspect of that relationship. You may conclude that the health benefits of moderate consumption (as well as your enjoyment of alcoholic beverages) outweigh the adverse health impacts. That’s fair enough. But do think for a moment about whether your personal definition of moderation is moderate enough. Think about whether you exceed moderation more often than you would like.

In the meantime, let's raise a toast to your good health.


1. For a thorough and insightful discussion of the impact of sleep on your health see 'Why We Sleep' - Matthew Walker
2. Rimm et al. (1999)
3. Corrao et al. (2000)
  1. Did you hear the news about Ben Affleck? I guess he was sober for a long time but recently relapsed. I know how that is. I’ve been through that same process myself.

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