What Amount of Alcohol Can Be Consumed Safely? Risks and Benefits

In the line of alcohol consumption, the key is moderation.

While numerous studies conducted over the past two decades have suggested that individuals who consume one drink per day or less may experience a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, or overall mortality compared to non-drinkers, recent research challenges these assertions.

A comprehensive review published in JAMA, encompassing 107 studies from 1980 to 2021, revealed that occasional or low-volume drinkers did not exhibit a lower risk of overall mortality compared to lifelong non-drinkers. Conversely, there was a notable increase in mortality risk among those who consumed a few drinks daily or more.

With nearly 5 million participants, the study demonstrated that low-volume drinkers had a significantly lower mortality risk than lifelong abstainers. After adjusting for study biases, such as non-representative samples and the inclusion of former drinkers in the abstainer groups, the mortality risk associated with alcohol consumption increased across all drinking categories. However, it became statistically insignificant for low-volume and occasional drinkers.

8 Unexpected Health Benefits of Alcohol

1. Set Your Boundaries

Before entertaining the idea of replacing the office water cooler with a beer keg, it’s crucial to understand that the health benefits of alcohol are confined to moderate consumption—approximately one drink a day for women (8 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor) and two for men. Beyond these limits, the benefits become less clear, and the risks escalate.

2. Supports Heart Health

For individuals in good health, moderate drinking can decrease the likelihood of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or hardened arteries by 25% to 40%. This may be attributed in part to the ability of small amounts of alcohol to raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels. However, excessive alcohol intake can elevate the risk of heart disease.

3. Boosts Physical Activity

Moderate drinkers are more likely to engage in regular exercise compared to non-drinkers, potentially reaping additional health benefits. Conversely, the correlation also exists in the opposite direction—those who exercise more are more likely to indulge in occasional alcohol consumption. The exact nature of this link remains unclear to scientists.

4. Guards Against Kidney Stones

Regular, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower likelihood of developing kidney stones, with a 40% reduction for beer drinkers and 33% for wine enthusiasts. One reason behind this phenomenon may be that alcohol, similar to caffeine in coffee and tea, promotes increased urination, aiding in the elimination of tiny crystals that contribute to stone formation. However, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to dehydration, raising the risk of kidney stones and other health issues.

5. Enhances Social Interaction

Building and maintaining good friendships is beneficial for overall well-being. Sharing a drink or two fosters communication and engagement, encouraging more meaningful conversations and shared smiles. However, moderation is key—happy hour is named as such for a reason.

6. Boosts Intimacy

Intimacy can be a stress reliever, and moderate alcohol consumption may facilitate this process. Some studies indicate that women who consume one or two glasses of red wine daily report increased desire, arousal, and sexual satisfaction. Excessive alcohol intake, however, can have adverse effects on sexual desire and function.

7. Supports Brain Health

Having a drink or two a few times a week may decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Moderate drinking might also lower the risk of stroke and heart disease, both of which can contribute to the acceleration of Alzheimer’s effects.

8. Regulates Blood Sugar

That occasional cocktail or glass of wine during happy hour or dinner may decrease the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. While the exact mechanism is not fully understood, it’s suggested that a moderate amount of alcohol may help the body healthily manage high blood sugar levels.

One potential explanation for the observed link between moderate drinking and a reduced risk of mortality in certain studies is that individuals who engage in light to moderate alcohol consumption generally exhibit healthier lifestyles than abstainers. On average, these individuals maintain better dietary habits, engage in more frequent exercise, and prioritize superior dental hygiene compared to those who refrain from alcohol entirely.

The inclination of moderate drinkers towards healthier behaviors could be influenced by factors such as religious commitments, as suggested by William Schaffner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. He notes that for many, abstaining from alcohol may be an isolated commitment while simultaneously indulging in other lifestyle choices like overeating, sedentary habits, and smoking. In this population, factors unrelated to abstinence might not necessarily correlate with overall health.

Mirza Rahman, MD, the president of the American College of Preventive Medicine, emphasizes that even adopting positive health practices in areas such as diet, exercise, and sleep may not be sufficient to counterbalance the potential adverse effects of moderate drinking. Recent extensive studies have consistently indicated that no level of alcohol consumption can be deemed entirely safe.

Closing Thoughts

The question of how much alcohol can be safely consumed remains a complex and nuanced issue. While some studies suggest a potential link between moderate alcohol consumption and lower mortality risk, it is essential to consider confounding factors. The observation that moderate drinkers often adopt healthier lifestyles, including better dietary habits and regular exercise, complicates the interpretation of these findings.

Moreover, the influence of religious commitments on abstinence highlights the multifaceted nature of individual choices regarding alcohol consumption. It is crucial to recognize that positive health behaviors in other aspects of life may not fully mitigate the negative impact of even moderate drinking, as indicated by recent comprehensive studies emphasizing the absence of a completely safe level of alcohol consumption.


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