Moderate Drinking and Your Health? It’s Complicated.

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By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

December 6, 2017

  • Health benefits of moderate drinking may be overstated
  • Alcoholic beverages are a recognized human carcinogen
  • Even moderate alcohol intake shrinks the brain

In the November 23rd issue of Advanced Natural Wellness, I mentioned that there is no “healthy” alcohol. And some people took exception to that. “But doc, red wine protects your heart”… “Moderate drinking helps you live longer”…

Yes and no.

Indeed, the polyphenols in red wine may offer some health and heart-protective benefits. But that doesn’t mean that the alcohol in wine doesn’t come with dangers of its own, as does any type of liquor.

The truth is I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the health benefits of moderate drinking are overstated. Data repeatedly shows that moderate drinkers are typically better educated and have higher social and economic status. So it could be as simple as the fact that they live an overall healthier lifestyle.

In the meantime, evidence is mounting that even moderate alcohol consumption can increase your risk of cancer and shrink your brain.

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Alcoholic Beverages are a Recognized Human Carcinogen

Did you know that alcohol beverage consumption is recognized by both the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known human carcinogen?

That’s right. Alcoholic beverages are on the same list as tobacco, asbestos, plutonium and formaldehyde.

And while it probably won’t surprise you to learn that alcohol is a primary cause of liver cancer, you may be taken aback by some of the other types of cancer linked to alcohol consumption.

Breast cancer. Higher alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Less than 10 grams of alcohol daily (about ¾ of a full drink) increases the risk by about 23% compared to non-drinkers. Drinking 30 or more grams (two or more drinks) bumps that risk up to 53%.

Esophageal cancer is especially common in male drinkers. Among non-smokers, moderate drinking boosts the risk of this type of cancer by more than 50%. The news is worse for heavy drinkers, raising the risk by about three times. The odds are even bleaker if you smoke and drink.

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Unfortunately, the type of cancer that develops is largely restricted to squamous cell carcinoma malignancy. And I’m sad to say that this form of cancer is usually quite well advanced when it is diagnosed.

Colon cancer. In general, all drinkers have about a 13% increased risk for colon cancer. And while that number may sound small in comparison to those seen in relationship with breast and esophageal cancer, this is nothing to trifle with. Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women, and the second leading cause in men.

Overall, alcohol related cancers are linked to a total of about 19 years of potential life lost for each death. And moderate alcohol consumption – less than 1.5 drinks a day – is linked to up to 35% of those cancer deaths.

Moderate Alcohol Intake Shrinks the Brain

In recent years, we’re also learning that moderate alcohol consumption shrinks the brain. Moderate drinkers have about three times the odds of developing hippocampal atrophy compared to non-drinkers.

Heavy drinkers fare even worse. Their odds of hippocampal shrinkage are almost six times higher than non-drinkers.

Now, the hippocampus is the area of your brain that stores memories. Just as importantly, it is also the region of the brain where Alzheimer’s strikes first – even before any symptoms appear. So it’s extremely important to your long-term cognitive health.

What does all of this boil down to?

If you enjoy a drink every now and then, go ahead and take a little pleasure in sipping your favorite alcoholic beverage. Just don’t trick yourself into thinking its good for you.

If you’re drinking a glass of wine or two every day (or any other type of alcohol) for the health benefits alone, then you might as well not drink at all. You are better off supplementing with about 100 mg. of resveratrol each day. This is the main polyphenol found in red wine. You can add 25 mg. of pterostilbene (a close cousin to resveratrol) for even greater heart-healthy benefits.

If you don’t drink and think you’re missing out on some great and phenomenal health benefits, don’t worry about it. You’re not missing out on anything at all.


Park SY, et al. Alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk among women from five ethnic groups with light to moderate intakes: the Multiethnic Cohort Study. Int J Cancer. 2014 Mar 15;134(6):1504-10.

Islami F, et al. Alcohol drinking and esophageal squamous cell carcinoma with focus on light-drinkers and never-smokers: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Cancer. 2011 Nov 15;129(10):2473-84.

Wang Y, et al. A pooled analysis of alcohol intake and colorectal cancer. Int J Clin Exp Med. 2015; 8(5): 6878–6889.

Nelson DE, et al. Alcohol-attributable cancer deaths and years of potential life lost in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2013 Apr;103(4):641-8.

Topiwala A, et al. Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study. BMJ. 2017 Jun 6;357:j2353.