Cheap Research - Alcohol is Good for You

The Science Times section of the New York Times had an article in the last Tuesday of 2002 reviewing the research on the beneficial health effects of ethanol. Now I have been watching this research since the mid-1970s. Large studies kept concluding that ethanol (not just red wine---that's an additional story) improves the blood lipid numbers, and, even better, is actually correlated with longer life. These reports often came with editorial comments regarding possible confounding factors: perhaps there is something in the pate, or maybe the longevity is caused by cowardly actions in international affairs. An nobody disputes that too much alcohol is decided bad for you.

The Science Times article basically concluded that after all these studies, the results are clear: one to two glasses of an alcoholic beverage each day prolongs life. It wasn't the red wine, it was the alcohol. It didn't matter whether it was a belt of whiskey, a glass of wine, or a pint of beer. Teetotalling is as highly correlated with heart disease as "morbid obesity!"

(The fact that low doses of a dangerous substance can be beneficial is called hormesis, and modern medicine is having trouble dealing with it. A good deal of the resistance to this subject comes from its similarity to homeopathy, the eighteenth century practice of treating people with solute-free solvents as an alternative to the overt poisons that medicine was administering at the time. Sometimes people get better all by themselves.)

After reading the article, I made a New Year's resolution to try to drink a glass of red wine every night. I got to know the guy at Gary's Wine store. Our wine cellar is slowly growing as I set some of each purchased case aside. (I need a good, large, cheap, wall-sized rack, if anyone can recommend one.) Sometimes I'd have an Amaretto or other liquor instead. I don't like red wine enough to drink more than about 1.5 glasses at a sitting.

Six months later my physician checked my blood work during my normal annual physical. He walked into the room and announced that I had changed my lifestyle. My cholesterol was much improved (down to 192) and the lipid profile much better. Oddly, some borderline liver enzyme readings I've had for the past 15 years ("Gilbert's syndrome", he said) were replaced by normal values as well.

Was I exercising more? No. I am working out at the gym one to three times a week, mostly lifting weights. I had been doing that for a couple of years.

I had changed my diet, then. No, food-wise I am continuing to eat the same crap I've eaten all my adult life.

I told him about the alcohol, and he responded: "I can't tell my patients to drink alcohol!" I believe that he is an excellent doctor, and certainly teetotalling is better than alcohol addiction, if you have that tendency.

About red wine: there is added evidence that the antioxidants in it might help fight cancer. A recent study suggested maybe not. Also, it is the highest known source of reserpine, a substance recently shown to activate the last stage in the protein cascade that dietary restriction activates, perhaps increasing longevity.

2008 followup: I finally looked at the change in cholesterol that brought on my doctor's comments: it had dropped from 208 to 192. Not bad. Of course, now (in 2009) I have been on statins for a while, and the number is closer to 135.


Hank Roberts writes:
Responding to your mention about adding alcohol -- I'd been watching the same research, made the same decision and got good results.

Herewith, in case you are collecting such:

7/26/2002 labs, before I decided to add alcohol as a routine. I've never particularly liked alcohol, and probably drank five ounces a year or so on average over the past 30 years. Not otherwise abstemious, active, flew hang gliders for years, just 'not a drinker' til the cholesterol numbers started to climb a decade ago.

I was already doing all the diet-and-lifestyle things short of Pritikin, basically being careful:

During 2003, I added alcohol (glass of dry wine 4-5x/week when I remembered) with no other change in an already good diet/activity pattern.

(During 2004, I've added avoiding fructose (ref 2).)

Here's one year of alcohol intake, no other changes:

 August 2002 labs:
       Item           #      'Normal' range +/- 2 standard deviations)
   Cholesterol total 212          <200
   Triglycerides     187          <150
   HDL                48          >40
   LDL               127          <130
   Chol:HDL ratio    4.4          <5
I'd been watching the alcohol info as you were for years, saw the same 2002 NYT article, made the same decision. Fortunately about then a good friend moved from California back to Chicago and left behind 40 or 50 cases of tolerably good dry homemade plum wine!

 December 2003 labs (different lab, 'Normal' still +/- 2 sigma)

   Cholesterol total 199         0-199
   Triglycerides     140         0-149
   HDL                66         40-59    great change here!
   LDL               105         0-129
   Chol:HDL ratio    3.0

Hmm. My triglycerides are definitely too high.

April 2004 update

The journal Nature (ref 1) had a summary of the world's problems with alcohol and alcoholics. They also had a sidebar that essentially restates the arguments above. It's a good source for other references, if you want to learn more.


1) Nature Vol. 428 pps. 598--600, 8 April 2004.

2) Kelley GL, Allan G, Azhar S., High dietary fructose induces a hepatic stress response resulting in cholesterol and lipid dysregulation.