Alcohol use can be a slippery slope. Moderate drinking can offer some health benefits. But heavy drinking can have serious consequences.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

It sounds like a mixed message: Drinking alcohol may offer some health benefits, especially for your heart. On the other hand, alcohol may increase your risk of health problems and damage your heart.

So which is it? When it comes to drinking alcohol, the key is doing so only in moderation. Certainly, you don't have to drink any alcohol, and if you currently don't drink, don't start drinking for the possible health benefits. In some cases, it's safest to avoid alcohol entirely — the possible benefits don't outweigh the risks.

Here's a closer look at the connection between alcohol and your health.

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits. It may:

  • Reduce your risk of developing and dying from heart disease
  • Possibly reduce your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)
  • Possibly reduce your risk of diabetes

Even so, the evidence about the possible health benefits of alcohol isn't certain, and alcohol may not benefit everyone who drinks.

If you choose to drink alcohol, do so only in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Examples of one drink include:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
  • Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)

Moderate alcohol use may be of most benefit if you're an older adult or if you have existing risk factors for heart disease. If you're a middle-aged or younger adult, some evidence shows that even moderate alcohol use may cause more harm than good. You can take other steps to benefit your cardiovascular health besides drinking — eating a healthy diet and exercising, for example.

In certain situations, the risks of alcohol use may outweigh the possible health benefits. For example, use alcohol only with great care and after consulting your doctor if:

  • You're pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • You've been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol abuse, or you have a strong family history of alcoholism
  • You have liver or pancreatic disease
  • You have heart failure or you've been told you have a weak heart
  • You take prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol
  • You've had a hemorrhagic stroke (when a blood vessel in your brain leaks or ruptures)

Keep in mind that even moderate use isn't risk-free. For example, drinking and driving is never a good idea.

Heavy drinking is defined as more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks a week for women and for men older than age 65, and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week for men age 65 and younger. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks within two hours for men.

While moderate alcohol use may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking — including binge drinking — has no health benefits. Excessive drinking can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:

  • Certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus
  • Pancreatitis
  • Sudden death if you already have cardiovascular disease
  • Heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) leading to heart failure
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease
  • Suicide
  • Accidental serious injury or death
  • Brain damage and other problems in an unborn child
  • Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

The latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits. So don't feel pressured to drink alcohol. But if you do drink alcohol and you're healthy, there's probably no need to stop as long as you drink responsibly and in moderation.

Feb. 11, 2014