Michael Mosley has given up alcohol for January – but does anyone know exactly what effect drinking has on our health?
You can’t open a newspaper at this time of year without reading a tale about moderate alcohol consumption being good or bad for you, or making no change at all. And now there are new government guidelines which reduce what were previously regarded as “safe” levels.
The new guidelines recommend , whether you are a man or a woman, drinking no more than 14 divisions a week and say it is best to spread those divisions over the week rather than binge. But they also recommend “several” alcohol-free days a week.
I am particularly interested in alcohol at the moment as I have just embarked on a Dry January ie trying to avoid all alcohol for a month. It started poorly when I had a drink on New Year’s Day( there were extenuating situations) but I have done well since then.
The reason I’m doing Dry January is partly to ensure what impact it will have on my biochemistry( I’ve done a range of blood tests) but chiefly because I want to see if I can do it.
But what are the risks and benefits of alcohol? When I was at medical school I was taught that there is a U-shaped curve when it comes to drinking. Non-drinkers and people who drink more than 2-3 divisions a day were said to be at greater hazard of heart disease( and therefore hazard of premature death) than people who were moderate drinkers. As a moderate drinker I saw this very encouraging.
Unfortunately many researchers now dispute that claim. For the most recent series of Trust Me I’m a Doctor I interviewed experts with vying views about the alleged benefits of alcohol.
What is a unit?
One measure of 40% spirit is one unit
One 125 ml glass of 12% wine is 1.5 units
One pint of 5.2% lager is 3 units
First up was Prof Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addiction Research at the University of Victoria in Canada. He has advised several governments, including our own, on alcohol guidelines and thinks there are no biochemical benefits to drinking( though he concedes moderate drinking can be sociable, and beneficial in that route ).
Find out more
Trust Me I’m A Doctor is broadcast on BBC Two at 20:00 GMT on Wednesday 6 January 2016, or you are able to catch up afterwards on iPlayer.
“There’s 60 different ways at least that alcohol can build you unwell or kill you, ” he told me over a glass of water. “It’s not just the obvious things like liver disease. A human drinking three to four divisions a day increases his hazard of developing prostate cancer by 23%. Alcohol, at whatever level, creates a woman’s risk of breast cancer. There’d be 10% fewer deaths from breast cancer worldwide if there was no drinking.”
He thinks that the studies which suggest that moderate drinking is protective are flawed. He says the problem is that people who don’t drink at all tend to include former alcoholics and people who are in poor health, and that skews the apparent benefits of moderate drinking.
He concedes that having a couple of drinkings twice a week is unlikely to do much harm, but recommends “abstinent days, abstinent months, and if you actually don’t miss the stuff, abstinent years.”
The other expert I interviewed, Dr Alexander Jones, a consultant cardiologist and clinical scientist at University College London, agrees that alcohol creates the health risks of a broad range of cancers but believes there is decent evidence that alcohol can be beneficial for the heart, at least in relatively low doses.
“Heavy drinkers, ” he told me, “have a much higher risk of developing heart disease than non-drinkers, but there are large prospective examines involving thousands of people in different parts of the world which show that if you drink modest quantities of alcohol, up to say two divisions of alcohol a day, then you are less likely to develop coronary heart disease or stroke later on in life.”