Alcohol isn't harmful in moderation, but it's not a health food

Red wine wards off heart attacks, wine drinkers are healthier than beer drinkers and a drink in the evening certainly has never hurt anyone, dpa reported.

These beliefs about the healthy effects of alcohol probably have been disputed by the regulars at every local bar, mostly without resolution. What are these assertions about alcohol all about? Does a drink a day really amount to nothing?

"You basically can't say where the border is to harmless alcohol consumption," said Arzt Jens Reimer of Germany's society of addiction medicine. The chemical ethanol, which is the intoxicant in beer and wine, is a neurotoxic substance. With every sip, some of our billions of nerve cells are sacrificed.

And it's no secret that the body's organs are attacked by the toxic effects of alcohol and its metabolic wastes. Liver damage and a higher risk of cancer are the indisputable long-term results of alcohol consumption, not to mention the danger of becoming dependent through regular consumption.

The World Health Organization recommends that women limit their daily consumption of alcohol to 20 grams, or about a half litre of beer, and men to 30 grams, or three-quarters of a litre of beer. Women who drink wine should stop after one glass, while men can have a little more, or about 0,3 litres. People who take the WHO recommendations to heart are indulging in low-risk alcohol consumption.

"There is no such thing as completely risk-free alcohol consumption," warns Germany's centre for addiction questions in Hamm in a brochure on the subject. Aside from that, moderate drinkers are operating in a short range. Daily consumption of more than 40 grams for women and 60 grams for men is considered dangerous.

Despite these caveats, there are also health-promoting effects to alcohol consumption. Cardiologist Armin Imhof of the university clinic at Ulm said alcohol provides for three things that are beneficial in preventing cardio-vascular illnesses. Alcohol changes the fat values in the blood. Most important, HDL - the good cholesterol - is increased. Alcohol also thins the blood and works to repress inflammation.

However, there is not much to back up studies showing that a typical wine drinker is healthier than a typical beer drinker. That's because wine drinkers tend to eat a Mediterranean diet, including more salads, fish and unsaturated fats, said Reimer. They also exercise more.

"The glass of wine goes along marginally with the lifestyle," Reimer said.

Imhof said the positive effects are independent of the type of drink. There are, however, indications that additives in wine and beer - namely polyphenols - also possibly have a protective effect.

"I am of the opinion that the clearest effects are due to alcohol," Imhof added.

What conclusions should people with heart disease draw?

"It is entirely clear that we should not say to anyone, 'Drink alcohol for your heart,'" Imhof said.

Among drinkers, the risks of suffering another alcohol-related illness or becoming dependent are incomparably higher, the centre for addiction questions said. And finally, it depends on the amount consumed. The best protective effects from alcohol are achieved with the consumption of six grams a day, said Imhof. When you can only drink that little, it's hardly worthwhile to open the bottle.

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