I'm confused: Will drinking help or hurt my health?

I'm confused: Will drinking help or hurt my health?

Question:
Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.
ABOUT THE EXPERT

Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.

Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D., is the founding medical director of Lifestyle 180, an innovative Cleveland Clinic program aimed at treating and... Read more

It depends! (How's that for clarifying things?) That's because drinking alcohol can lower your risk of some diseases and increase your risk of others. When trying to determine whether alcohol will help or hurt you, you need to consider your past and current health, as well as your family's health history.

When it comes to heart disease, moderate drinking (for women, this means five ounces of wine, a 12-ounce beer or a one-ounce shot per day; men can double this) can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. (Even smaller amounts of alcohol have health benefits.)

There are currently more than 100 studies that show this association. Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol can potentially raise your high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, decrease inflammation, prevent blood clots and reduce blood vessel damage caused by fat deposits.

But before you open that bottle of red wine, you must also consider the negative effects of drinking alcohol. Some studies show that regular alcohol consumption can increase risk of certain cancers, including breast and gastrointestinal. So if, for instance, you have a first-degree relative who's had breast cancer (such as your mother or sister), you'll want to limit the amount of alcohol you drink, or avoid it altogether, depending on what your doctor advises. You can also take 400 mcg of folic acid every day, the amount found in a multivitamin, which may reduce breast cancer risk. Alcohol can also raise both your triglycerides (a marker for heart disease and diabetes) and your blood pressure. In large amounts, it can lead to obesity and liver disease. Alcohol is also addictive, and alcoholism can dramatically affect your health, your relationships and your career. If alcoholism is in your family, you should consider avoiding alcohol completely.

Finally, if you're taking any medications (this includes supplements, over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies), be sure to check with your physician or pharmacist to ensure they don't interact with alcohol. Women who are pregnant—or trying to become pregnant—should also avoid alcohol completely.

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