Moderate Drinking Is Healthy for Only a Few of Us

Posted on February 19th, 2015
Posted in News

A new study confirms that moderate alcohol consumption can protect against heart disease, but only in the 15 percent of the population that has a particular genotype.

Alcohol is the most widely abused addictive substance in the world. As of 2012, approximately 7.2 percent of adults in the United States—around 17 million people— suffered from some form of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

In addition to the risk of an AUD, alcohol consumption also carries the danger of physical health problems. Heavy long-term drinking or isolated instances of binge-drinking can lead to heart problems, liver damage, pancreatic damage, a weakened immune system and a higher risk of cancer.

Despite the potential for both psychological and physical health problems, moderate alcohol consumption has long been thought to confer potential health benefits. In particular, moderate drinking is believed to lessen a person’s risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking is defined as five or more drinks on a single occasion during five of the past 30 days. Binge drinking means bringing one’s blood-alcohol level to the legal limit (0.08) in a period of two hours or less, which typically happens after about four drinks for women and five drinks for men.

However, a new study from Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden shows that only people with a certain genotype—amounting to about 15 percent of the world’s population—can gain any protective effect against coronary heart disease from moderate alcohol consumption.

Six-hundred eighteen patients with coronary heart disease and 3,000 healthy control subjects participated in the Swedish study. The results confirmed earlier research suggesting that moderate drinking can benefit heart health only in those people who possess the CETP TaqIB genotype. This genotype has to do with the cholesteryl ester transfer protein, which impacts HDL cholesterol (the “heart healthy” form of cholesterol).

Neither the genotype nor moderate alcohol consumption alone appears to offer much protection from coronary heart disease. However, the two factors together, for reasons that are not yet understood, do seem to have a significant effect on the likelihood of coronary heart disease developing.

These results suggest that common medical advice about the potential health benefits of moderating drinking is not justified. If physicians could determine who possesses the genotype, they could advise those people that moderate drinking might benefit them. However, without that knowledge, people who will not benefit from drinking are nevertheless often being encouraged to consume alcohol on a regular basis.

Mistaken Belief Could Encourage At-Risk Individuals to Drink

It is very possible that the incorrect but widespread belief that moderate drinking protects from coronary hearty disease could encourage some people to take up drinking or to continue drinking despite the fact that they are at high risk for alcohol use disorders. This might include people who are at high genetic risk for AUDs because they have a history of alcohol abuse in their families. It could also include people who have suffered or are currently suffering from another kind of addiction. Any history of addiction puts people at much higher risk of becoming dependent on another substance or behavior.

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