Are you doing Dry January? According to its organisers, a staggering nine million of you world-wide are trying it out.
Why? To recover from a boozy Christmas, to prove to yourself you’re not addicted, or to improve your health?
Medical research says the first two reasons may be sensible, but not necessarily the third one.
Really? That can’t be right. Laying off the demon drink must surely be good for your health.
I’m a medical research journalist, meaning that I’m a nerdy type who enjoys ferreting through scientific journals.
Some years ago, I made the chance discovery that, although high in calories, alcohol seemingly does not make you put on weight.
Are you doing Dry January? According to its organisers, a staggering nine million of you world-wide are trying it out
Delving further into the medical literature, I found another paradox: that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol appear less prone to various diseases.
And these are not trivial ailments. Compared to teetotallers, the evidence said that moderate drinkers have reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, osteoporosis, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even some cancers.
No marks for guessing that the research studies also showed that moderate drinkers enjoy a healthier old age, and live a lot longer than non-drinkers.
Those stunning but scientifically incontrovertible findings were the meat of my book ‘The Good News About Booze’ which I wrote in 2013.
In 2016, however, official British alcohol guidelines of how much was safe to drink were suddenly slashed in half. The previous figures had been cleverly set at what medical science said was a healthy moderate alcohol intake, but these were swept aside.
The whole emphasis changed to declaring moderate consumption as dangerous, with medical officials saying things like ‘there is no safe level of alcohol intake’ and that its ‘supposed’ health benefits were ‘an old wives’ tale’.
And Britain wasn’t alone. Across the world, guidelines were also heavily cut, often to ludicrously low levels, accompanied by dire warnings that alcohol is a dangerous as tobacco.
That blatant lie finally made me see red. I decided I had to write another book to expose the wrong-headedness of this international anti-alcohol campaign – particularly regarding wine, the most health-promoting of all alcoholic drinks.
The upshot is ‘The Very Good News About Wine‘, was published a few weeks ago.
I’m a moderate wine drinker, so am I doing Dry January? Take a wild guess.
This is the disease medics know most about, after two long-term population studies by Oxford and Harvard universities in the 1990s showed a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular problems among moderate drinkers.
Later laboratory tests explained why.
Drinkers have higher levels of HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, and their blood is less prone to clotting — mainly, it is thought, due to alcohol’s thinning (‘vasodilating’) effect.
Drinkers’ blood also contains fewer ‘inflammatory biomarkers’ of heart disease, with less fibrinogen, C-reactive protein and albumin.
Unsurprisingly, post-mortems find that moderate drinkers have less atherosclerosis (furred-up arteries) than non-drinkers.
Wine itself has even more heart health benefits, reducing homocysteine and increasing omega-3 levels.
How? Wine has an extra punch of antioxidants, derived from the polyphenols naturally contained in grapes. These are what give wine its colour.
In 2008, a British research group surveyed the entire international evidence and concluded that ‘low to moderate alcohol use in earlier adult life is associated with a 38 per cent reduced risk of unspecified incident dementia,’ noting that the risk of Alzheimer’s might be prevented by drinking up to half a litre of wine a day.
But how? Experiments in animals may provide the answer.
After wine is added to the water bottles of mice, their brains show a marked reduction in the beta-amyloid plaques associated with this terrible disease.
However, the benefit seems to come not just from the polyphenols in wine, but from alcohol itself.
In one study, University of Chicago researchers gave ‘moderate’ amounts of alcohol to rats in their water supply for six days, and then tried to artificially induce the classic beta-amyloid plaques, using a standard invasive technique.
But they couldn’t.
‘We observed nearly complete neuroprotection,’ the researchers reported.
‘Alcohol effectively preconditions brain cells to withstand a variety of neurotoxic insults.’
While heavy drinking is unquestionably linked to an extra risk of certain cancers, especially those of the mouth, throat and oesophageal, moderate drinking is not.
In fact, there’s another paradox: moderate drinking can, studies suggest, reduce the risk of cancer.
For example, rates of oesophageal cancer appear lower in moderate drinkersthan non-drinkers.
As for bowel cancer, research says moderate drinkers have no extra risk, and some studies show wine drinkers have less risk than non-drinkers.
Liver cancer is the one most people have heard of, but only a minority of heavy drinkers succumb — about one in five of them.
Moderate drinkers may even have a reduced risk of steatohepatitis — a forerunner of liver cancer.
Breast cancer is perhaps the most studied of all the cancers, but overall the evidence of alcohol’s harm is patchy, with most studies showing no link at all at moderate intakes.
Indeed, research shows that French wine drinkers have less breast cancer than abstainers.
Wine has also surprisingly been found to reduce the risk of lung cancer, even in smokers.
Even more astonishingly, alcohol itself seems to prevent half-a-dozen cancers, including thyroid, kidney and leukaemia.
So, although the alcohol and cancer picture is a puzzle for medical science, one thing is certain: moderate drinking isn’t part of it.
Tony Edwards is a former BBC science producer, director and writer. He has authored two books on the link between alcohol and health and two Medicine in the Media awards from the British Medical Association.