Alcohol is the one thing that divides opinion. Some believe that no good can come of it, while others furnish reasons why it isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. Now, stirring this heady cocktail is a team from Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, whose new study suggests that low to moderate alcohol consumption might potentially reduce the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events and heart diseases.
The study, Reduced Stress-Related Neural Network Activity Mediates The Effect Of Alcohol On Cardiovascular Risk, states that alcohol can be beneficial in lowering stress. Cardiologists and others in the medical fraternity are treating this new information with caution, reminding everyone that despite this new information, all the other health risks associated with alcohol still remain.
Dr. Nishith Chandra, principal director of interventional cardiology at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi, points out that alcohol is a psychoactive substance that affects the brain and body in various ways. Its effects can differ based on factors like genetics, overall health, and patterns of consumption.
The other caveat with the new report, he says, is that the definition of “low and moderate” drinking can vary depending on the country, and the organisation providing the guidelines. Dr. Pravin Kahale, consultant for cardiology at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai, says that there are better ways to reduce stress than consuming alcohol. “When people who consume alcohol regularly cut down it might increase their stress due to its addiction potential and withdrawal symptoms. Their anxiety might increase and could lead to neurological and psychiatric disorders. In addition, the same studies that found that low to moderate alcohol consumption may reduce heart diseases, but can increase cancers,” he says. Moreover, there are multiple studies that demonstrate the harm that alcohol causes to the brain, liver and heart.
According to India’s latest National Family Health Survey-5, 18.7% men and 1.3% women aged 15 and above drink. The consumption of booze is on the rise in the country due to multiple factors, including higher incomes and increasing urbanisation. In the national context, people should be very careful about turning to alcohol to combat stress and risk of heart disease. After all, alcohol consumption means increased caloric intake, and since we currently face a global diabetes epidemic caused by caloric excesses, alcohol is likely to fuel this problem, says Kahale.
India’s burden of diabetes is almost a health crisis with approximately 100 million Indians suffering from the disease. Another 30-40 million are living with pre-diabetes ,and it is estimated that every two-three out of 10 Indians are diabetic, says Dr. Archana Juneja, a consultant endocrinologist at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai.
Health professionals in India often have different definitions for low to moderate drinking. For Chandra, consuming a small amount of alcohol occasionally qualifies as low drinking. “It implies drinking within recommended limits or staying below the legal driving limit. Moderate drinking typically refers to consuming alcohol in amounts that do not exceed the recommended limits. Guidelines often define moderate drinking as no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women,” he says.
However, for Kahale, “low to moderate alcohol consumption would be one peg a day, which is probably 30 ml, or two pegs on alternate days, or 5-6 pegs a week.” The volume of one unit of alcohol can vary depending on the country, but there are approximate values for beer, wine, and spirits. For example, the standard one unit in England is 25ml of spirit while it is 30ml in India.
In the Indian context, one unit is considered to be about 330 ml of regular beer, which typically has an alcohol content of around 5%; one unit of wine is typically about 100 ml with an alcohol content of around 12%; one unit of spirits such as whiskey, vodka, or rum is about 30 ml and they have an alcohol content of around 40%. The effects of alcohol can be influenced by various factors, such as individual tolerance, overall health, and the presence of other medications or substances in the body, say health experts.
The risks of alcohol consumption include neuropsychiatric disorder, liver disorder, cardiac disorder, gastric ulcers, reflux esophagitis and rise in blood pressure, says Kahale. “Also, large amounts of alcohol can cause heart attack while in cases of binge drinking severe vomiting can rupture the food pipe,” he adds. Instead of relying on low to moderate alcohol consumption to reduce stress and risk of heart disease, it is more prudent to adopt a better lifestyle including exercise, focus on mental wellbeing and eating healthier food.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.