On Alcohol And Longevity
Ethanol, aka “alcohol”, is likely the most widely consumed drug on Earth. With the exception of its effects on heart disease, which I’ll address in a moment, few people would claim it is good for you. But, because of its legality, omnipresence, and just the fact that it is so much fun, most think very little of having a few beers or even bottles of wine. Yes, bottles.This includes EE clients.
It is far from being a harmless vice. Even if you’re not a functioning alcoholic, ethanol affects numerous neurotransmitters, metabolic processes, and hormones — and many of these effects go beyond the time period of intoxication. To keep this part from being a semester of biochemistry, let’s make it simple: excessive ethanol screws with these processes, increasing body fat storage and reducing health. Full stop. Do not pass go, do not collect your red wine because it’s “high in antioxidants.”
But what about that woman in the photo above? She’s having a cold one on her 111th(!) birthday. Yes, a cold one. Uno, singular, one.
If you search the internet for terms like “centenarian + whiskey” you’ll find all sorts of claims from people living over the age of 100 that part of their success was due to alcohol. Upon further examination these people aren’t drinking much, a drink or so per day.
When you look at the studies that have been done on alcohol and health, the studies typically follow a J-curve; that is, there is an initial steep drop for your first “dose” of alcohol and a small reduction in benefits for each dose after that until you eventually are harming yourself with consumption.
In perhaps the most widely cited study on the subject, the authors fitted nonlinear functions to the data; that is instead of trying to find a perfectly straight line that you see in some studies, they were able to find the J-curves I discussed above. Due to this being a meta-analysis, there are a variety of curves based on the data and the statistical analysis used in each study. As a result, you get a wide variety of “maximum” drinks per day before health benefits are lost. Take a look:
However, what doesn’t vary amongst the studies are that the J-curves botttom out, that is the health benefits are maximized, at roughly 5-7 grams of alcohol per day. That’s about half of a drink per day! No, you can’t save it up for a night of partying and get the same benefits. Nice try!
So the benefits of alcohol are seen in regular, tiny doses. Alcohol, like exercise, is a hormetic agent. It irritates the body that adapts in ways that correlate with reduced mortality risk. Too much irritation leads to problems.
But what about the antioxidants that we “need” that wine gives us? If we’re going to drink, shouldn’t we drink more wine instead of random other booze? First of all, the notion that you’re not getting enough antioxidants from your food and would then hope to make up the difference with wine consumption really means you need to fix your damn diet! Besides, if you’re drinking coffee, you’re already getting a ton of antioxidants. But if you’re really concerned, just drink grape juice. Seriously.
Or maybe you’ll use the resveratrol argument, that this compound found in wine is the secret to longevity…why restrict that? Well, here’s the thing: in order to get the benefits of resveratrol in a dose that makes any sort of benefit, you’d need to drink eight liters of wine per day! Good luck ever getting out of bed after that dose!
Small regular doses
Go back to the health habits I’ve spoken about before; one of the habits was “reduce intake of alcohol.” There is benefit from a little bit of alcohol regularly, in this case that sweet spot happens to be about one half of a drink per day. For the sake of measurement, and since the curve doesn’t really drift that far, one drink per day is a good choice. What does that look like? A 5 ounce glass of wine, a 12 ounce beer, or a shot of liquor. Yes, that’s it.
I’m not suggesting you drink if you don’t already; I’m saying that it’s time to get real about the health benefits and how little it actually takes to manifest these benefits. The answer is: not as much as you think, but only when regularly consumed.
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.