Too much alcohol is bad for you. But teetotalers tend to be worse off than people who drink moderately, at least in the US.
There is plenty of evidence that ancient people made alcoholic beverages, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that they would have passed up the opportunity to consume alcohol when they came across it. Fruit and honey can ferment. Surely some of our ancient ancestors found a naturally occurring supply of beer, mead, wine, rot gut, and hooch. But to determine the health effects of alcohol we really have to rely on what we know about modern people.
Most epidemiological studies, investigations that interview vast numbers of people after the fact and try to find trends in lifestyle and disease, conclude that moderate consumption of alcohol is healthy. However, the kind of research that has concluded that a drink or two a day is good for you is correlational. It finds statistical linkages among lifestyle factors and health outcomes, but it cannot tell anyone whether a lifestyle factor causes a health outcome, a health outcome shapes a lifestyle choice, or some third variable that isn't being tested really makes the difference.
For instance, one study followed 1800 men and women over the age of 55 for the next 20 years. It found that heavy drinkers were 45 percent more likely to have died before age 85 than moderate drinkers. It also found that teetotalers were 51 percent more likely to have died before age 85 than moderate drinkers. But a reasonable conclusion is not necessarily that drinking is good for you. That is because the study also found that abstainers were:
• More likely to smoke,
• Less likely to exercise,
• Less likely to eat vegetables,
• More likely to have had “drinking problems,” and
• Less educated
than moderate drinkers. The study also found that abstainers from alcohol were more likely to be employed, less likely to have stable family relationships, less likely to have community ties, and more likely to be unmarried than moderate drinkers.
Other studies have found that the apparent benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol disappear when these confounding variables are considered. And still other studies have found that people who have specific disease conditions, notably diabetes and certain kinds of heart disease, benefit from drinking wine.
The bottom line is that a drink or two a day is probably OK, but except for small numbers of people who have certain health conditions, there is no proven benefit. However, if you are going to drink, it is important to know that certain kinds of foods and alcohol just don't go together. In particular, polyunsaturated fats, the fats in industrially refined cooking oils, combined with alcohol, can do substantial damage to the liver. On the other hand, monounsaturated fats, like those in the healthy fats we list above, protect the liver from the effects of alcohol, as does choline, which is found in abundance in meat.
Polyunsaturated fats destabilize the linings of cells in the liver, while monounsaturated fats strengthen them. Polyunsaturated fats also help regulate appetite in ways that keep the liver from having to break down its stores of glycogen into glucose to feed the rest of the body. When you eat the “good” fats we have listed in the sections above, your liver doesn't have to work as hard and is more able to maintain itself.
Alcohol, as you probably know, can be used as a disinfectant. When alcohol reaches the lower digestive tract, it can kill probiotic bacteria but leave pathogenic bacteria unaffected. Excessive drinking can leave the bacteria that produce endotoxins, especially when the diet includes large amounts of polyunsaturated fat from corn oil, soybean oil, and conventionally raised pork lard (or bacon). A bacon and martini diet, for example, which was very popular in the 1960's, can devastate the bacterial balance of the gut and generate large amounts of toxins inside the body, no matter how “pure” your diet is otherwise.
The problem with maintaining gut health while drinking is you never know how much is too much for the bacteria in your system. That's why we recommend that anyone who drinks any alcohol at all follow these simple dietary principles to keep alcohol consumption safer, if not always completely safe:
• If you drink enough that you get a hangover, nutritional supplements are actually a good idea. The acetaldehyde your liver makes from alcohol is what gives you the hangover. Acetaldehyde also oxidizes polyunsaturated fat—so no bacon the morning after a drinking binge, no fast food French fries, either. Take vitamin C, N-acetylcysteine, and a “complete B vitamin” (it's the thiamin and pantethine your body needs after you have been drunk, but it's easier not to fumble through the medicine cabinet looking for bottles of individual B vitamins) at least the day after you get drunk.
• Eat meat when you drink alcohol, but don't eat fish or roasted duck. The docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in oily cold water fish like salmon is easily oxidized by acetaldehyde. You should not eat fish like salmon at any meal at which you eat fish, and you should not take fish oil supplements on days that you drink. Roasted duck is extremely fatty and contains omega-6 fats that are damaged by alcohol. The best foods to eat when you drink are non-oily fish (warm-water fish), beef, and lamb.
• Eat several egg yolks a week. They are an excellent source of liver-protective choline. They are also a great source of vitamin K, which, surprisingly, is essential for limiting calcification of cholesterol in your arteries.
• Don't drink alcohol when you are taking antibiotics. The combination of antibiotics and alcohol can be just too much for healthy bacteria, and you can experience either diarrhea or acid reflux as they die.
Photo credit: By Šarūnas Burdulis from USA (Beer tasting in Local 180 Uploaded by GiW) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.