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Alcohol – poison or medicine?

If you read a headline today suggesting you should drink more alcohol to be healthy, based on some new piece of research, I strongly advise you to view it with suspicion. It’s likely that other scientists will soon be telling you the opposite.

There are certainly studies which have shown that people who drink a certain small amount of a certain type of alcoholic drink will – on average – enjoy some reduction in their risk of contracting certain diseases. But things are never quite that certain.

Take the case for drinking a little each day to reduce the risk of heart disease. Many people today view red wine, in particular, as a kid of preventative medicine. What heart disease experts actually say is that although there is some evidence of protective benefits in the case of people over the age of 40, you have to remember that the alcohol may be at the same time increasing your risk of developing other diseases.

If we take heart disease in isolation, a small amount of alcohol may reduce the risk but if you go over that amount you will increase the risk. I can’t put a precise figure on it, but typically people talk about one glass a day as a small amount that could possibly be viewed as medicinal.

Similar arguments apply to a number of other health benefits. The risk of some cancers appears to be lowered by a small amount of alcohol while the same amount will actually increase the risk of some other cancers.

A small amount of alcohol has been linked to strong bones in some studies but in others it is blamed for weakening bone structure.

I’ve found studies suggesting that small amounts of alcohol can help to avoid Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia. Perhaps if I spent more time searching I would find research contradicting that. One thing is for sure: we all know that too much alcohol is bad for the brain.

I really don’t need to tell you that alcohol is poisonous if taken to excess. We have all seen the effect it can have on people’s health and the trouble it can cause in society.

But before you start thinking I’m campaigning against alcohol, I should point out that I do enjoy drinking and I intend to carry on drinking. I don’t do it for the sake of my health, although I believe that a little relaxed, social drinking can be good for my mental wellbeing, but I keep it within limits and I accept that there may be some small health risk to it.

There may turn out to be some small health benefits to taking a little alcohol, but I don’t think we should view it as medicine. If you’re looking for an improvement in your health, and to minimise your susceptibility to diseases, you will achieve a much greater effect by making other changes in your lifestyle, such as giving up smoking, eating a healthier diet, controlling your weight and taking exercise.