For centuries, the healthier populations in the Mediterranean region have enjoyed wine in light to moderate amounts, usually with meals. Epidemiologic studies there and in other parts of the world have associated reasonable alcohol consumption with prolonged lifespan, reduced coronary artery disease, diminished Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and possibly fewer strokes.
Alcohol tends to increase HDL cholesterol (the good stuff), have an antiplatelet effect, and may reduce C-reactive protein, a marker of arterial inflammation. These effects would tend to reduce cardiovascular disease. Wine taken with meals provides antioxidant phytochemicals (polyphenols, procyanidins) which may protect against atherosclerosis and some cancers.
What’s a “reasonable” amount of alcohol? An old medical school joke is that a “heavy drinker” is anyone who drinks more than the doctor does. Light to moderate alcohol consumption is generally considered to be one or fewer drinks per day for a woman, two or fewer drinks per day for a man. One drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (e.g., vodka, whiskey, gin). The optimal health-promoting type of alcohol is unclear. I tend to favor wine, a time-honored component of the Mediterranean diet. Red wine in particular is a rich source of resveratrol, which is thought to be a major contributor to the cardioprotective benefits associated with light to moderate alcohol consumption. Grape juice may be just as good—it’s too soon to tell.
Steve Parker, M.D.
Standridge, John B., et al. Alcohol consumption: An overview of benefits and risks. Southern Medical Journal, 97 (2004): 664-672.
Luchsinger, Jose A., et al. Alcohol intake and risk of dementia. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 52 (2004): 540-546.