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Alcohol consumption and health: linked? | Anahite Afshar, Nutritionist-Dietitian 


Anahite Afshar






With the return of warm weather, what could be more pleasant than soaking up the sun on a patio with a glass of [insert your favorite alcoholic beverage] in hand?

Alcoholic beverages are present in festive events, and associated with gatherings and celebration, but also banned in some religions and associated with abuse and addiction.

Alcohol is still a taboo subject today, but has always had a social and cultural aspect. It is believed that the discovery of alcohol dates back to the Neolithic era, probably by chance during a natural fermentation of food products.

It is still a drug, but a socially accepted one. Also considered as a food, its consumption is not only tolerated in our society, but also facilitated and encouraged.

In fact, the majority of the population drinks alcohol, in greater or lesser quantities and more or less frequently: 80% of Canadians (1) and 82% of Quebecers (2) over the age of 15.

We can therefore wonder about its effects on health since such a large part of the population is concerned.

Is alcohol good or bad for your health?
It depends.
There are both benefits and dangers to drinking alcohol and its effect on health depends on the amount consumed according to age, gender, weight and genetics.

In addition, alcohol can impact different organs and therefore many aspects of health. It is important to look at the big picture to get an idea.

Drinking alcoholic beverages can have beneficial effects on health, but under certain conditions. Again, the dose makes the poison. In this case, we are talking about light to moderate consumption.

Moderation tastes much better
What is meant by "moderate consumption"?

According to Educ'Alcool (3), a non-profit organization that is an expert on the subject, moderate drinking for women means a maximum of 2 drinks per day and a maximum of 10 per week, while the limit for men is 3 drinks per day and 15 per week. On the other hand, to avoid addiction, both physical and psychological, it is recommended not to drink every day and to abstain from alcohol at least one day a week. Drinking less than these amounts is considered light and drinking more than these amounts is considered excessive.

And what is a drink?
A drink is defined by its percentage of alcohol (4):




Warning! Strong beers and alcohol mixtures generally contain more alcohol than standard drinks. It is important to check the alcohol percentage on the bottle.

Benefits of light to moderate drinking

Psychosocial benefits
You may not be surprised to learn that light to moderate drinking tends to reduce stress, but you may be surprised to learn that it also tends to decrease clinical symptoms of depression, as well as improve mood, cognitive performance and even functioning in older adults (5). However, it should be remembered that these are effects associated with light to moderate consumption; excessive consumption is a source of stress to the body and may increase psychological distress.

Cardiometabolic benefits
Numerous epidemiological and clinical studies show that light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and mortality. However, don't be too quick to rejoice, these beneficial effects are only observed from midlife onwards in men and from menopause onwards in women (6).

Moreover, moderate alcohol consumption in healthy people could also be associated with an increase in insulin sensitivity and therefore have a protective effect against the development of type 2 diabetes (7). Indeed, observational studies suggest a 30% reduction in risk in moderate drinkers (6 to 48g alcohol per day, i.e. 0.3 to 2.8 drinks per day), whereas no risk reduction is observed in heavy drinkers (more than 48g/day) (8).



The health effects of moderate and regular alcohol consumption are still poorly understood and sometimes controversial. Even if, at low doses, alcohol consumption seems to have a positive impact on health and well-being, these results should not be taken as an incentive to drink, as the health risk remains. Thus, people who are not used to drinking alcohol should not start drinking for the possible beneficial effects.

On the other hand, some people should abstain from drinking to avoid any risks related to alcohol: people with an addiction problem, pregnant women and people taking medication that can interact with alcohol, for example.

In all cases, there is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption is harmful to health.

Harmful effects of moderate to heavy drinking
Alcohol consumption is unfortunately associated with problems of accidents, violence and addiction. But, there are also impacts on the body.

In the short term, there is veisalgia (9), more commonly known as "morning after" or "hangover". This is the generalized feeling of discomfort that results from excessive alcohol consumption. The discomfort occurs as the blood alcohol level decreases and is at its peak when the blood alcohol level has dropped to zero. These discomforts rarely last more than 24 hours.

The symptoms of veisalgia are associated with the concentration of alcohol in the blood and this depends essentially on three factors: time, weight (also differences between fat mass and lean mass) and sex.

The causes of veisalgia are diverse. First, there is a direct cause, which is the production of acetaldehyde. During the metabolization of alcohol by the liver, an enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, transforms the alcohol into acetaldehyde, a very toxic substance for the body.

Then there are also indirect causes of veisalgia: water, sugar and sleep deficiencies caused by alcohol abuse.

Alcohol inhibits the antidiuretic hormone, which promotes dehydration. This is the main cause of thirst, fatigue, headaches and muscle aches.

Alcohol consumption also causes hypoglycemia. The liver is the organ responsible for producing glucose. When it is busy metabolizing alcohol, it is no longer able to perform this other function. Since glucose is the main source of energy for the body and the brain, a deficiency leads to weakness, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, etc.

Finally, there is the lack of sleep. Even if it is true that for some people, alcohol helps them fall asleep, it disturbs the quality of sleep by modifying the cycle.

Weight gain
You will not be surprised to learn that the consumption of alcohol, even in moderation, enters into the equation of energy balance (7kcal/g, one consumption is equivalent to about 150kcal) and can lead to weight gain (10).

Effects on internal organs and the circulatory system (11):
The liver
Since the liver is the organ that metabolizes alcohol, liver disease is one of the most common complications of alcohol abuse. There is hepatic steatosis and alcoholic hepatitis which are still reversible with the cessation of alcohol, but if the stage of cirrhosis is irreversible and you will guess that the survival rate is low. The risk of alcohol toxicity on the liver can be expressed at moderate to excessive doses, at a threshold of 30g per day (about 2 drinks) in women and 50g (about 3 drinks) per day in men.

The pancreas
Pancreatitis, acute or chronic, is in 80 to 90% of cases caused by alcohol consumption. Chronic pancreatitis can lead to permanent damage that causes the organ to malfunction and numerous complications.

Alcohol consumption can cause gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). These repeated GERDs can lead to esophagitis which can develop into an ulcer. Chronic alcohol intoxication is also the main factor in esophageal cancer.

Alcohol is a gastric irritant and can cause inflammation of the stomach lining leading to gastritis.

Alcohol decreases intestinal motility and absorption of various nutrients and alters the secretion of the entire intestines, leading to nutritional deficiencies and diarrhea.



Alcohol is an important factor in high blood pressure. Blood pressure increases with the amount consumed. Systolic blood pressure increases by an average of 2.7mmHg in people who have 4-6 drinks and by 4.6mmHg in those who have 7 or more drinks.

Chronic heavy drinking can cause cardiomyopathy, a condition of the heart muscle. While light to moderate alcohol consumption may have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular risk, excessive consumption has the opposite effect.

Again, while light to moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of having a stroke, excessive consumption is an important risk factor that increases the risk of death from brain hemorrhage.

Drinking less alcohol can be beneficial for many people.

Here are 10 tips for reducing alcohol consumption:
Set a drinking goal (for example, no more than 3 drinks per occasion).
Measure your consumption. Check the % of alcohol and take standard drinks.
Be well hydrated before you even begin to feel thirsty (to avoid taking your drink in one go and increasing dehydration).
Start with a glass of water or a non-alcoholic drink and then alternate with a glass of water for each drink.
Eat while drinking to slow down the rate of drinking and the rapid increase in blood alcohol.
Try non-alcoholic drinks (e.g., mocktails).
Drink slowly, take small sips, enjoy: maximum 1 drink per hour.
Wait until you finish your drink before getting another one.
Avoid holding the glass in your hand, put the glass as far away as possible.
Avoid drinking alone, make alcohol a social and occasional food.

Public Health Agency of Canada Chief Public Health Officer's Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2015. ALCOHOL USE IN CANADA.
Peele S & Grant M. (1999). Alcohol and Pleasure: A Health Perspective. Levittown, USA: Brunner/Mazel Publisher.
Agarwal DP. (2002). Cardioprotective effects of light-moderate consumption of alcohol: a review of putative mechanisms. Alcohol & alcoholism. 37(5):409-15.
Rimm EB et al (1995). Prospective study of cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and the risk of diabetes in men. BMJ 1995;310:555
Koppes, LLJ. (2005). Moderate Alcohol Consumption Lowers the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes A meta-analysis of prospective observational studies. Diabetes Care, 28 (3) 719- 725.
Educalcool :
Suter PM & Tremblay A. (2008). Is Alcohol Consumption A Risk Factor For Weight Gain And Obesity? Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences. 42 (3)