Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits

Moderate alcohol use has possible health benefits, but it's not risk-free.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Understanding the risks and any possible health benefits of alcohol often seems confusing; that's understandable, because the evidence for moderate alcohol use in healthy adults isn't certain.

Researchers know surprisingly little about the risks or benefits of moderate alcohol use in healthy adults. Almost all studies of lifestyle, including diet, exercise, caffeine, and alcohol, rely on patient recall and truthful reporting of one's habits over many years. These studies may indicate that two things may be associated with one another, but not necessarily that one causes the other. It may be that adults who are in good health engage in more social activities and enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol, but that the alcohol has nothing to do with making them healthier.

Any potential benefits of alcohol are relatively small and may not apply to all individuals. In fact, the latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should begin drinking alcohol or drink more often on the basis of potential health benefits. For many people, the possible benefits don't outweigh the risks and avoiding alcohol is the best course.

On the other hand, if you're a light to moderate drinker and you're healthy, you can probably continue to drink alcohol as long as you do so responsibly.

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

Defining moderate

Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults generally means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.

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)

Pros and cons of moderate alcohol use

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as:

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

However, eating a healthy diet and being physically active have much greater health benefits and have been more extensively studied.

Keep in mind that even moderate alcohol use isn't risk-free. For example, even light drinkers (those who have no more than one drink a day) have a tiny, but real, increased risk of some cancers, such as esophageal cancer. And drinking and driving is never a good idea.

Risks of heavy alcohol use

While moderate alcohol use may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking — including binge drinking — has no health benefits.

Heavy or high-risk 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.

Excessive drinking can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:

  • Certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and liver
  • 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

When to avoid alcohol

In certain situations, the risks of alcohol may outweigh the possible health benefits. For example, check with your doctor about drinking if:

  • You're pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • You've been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol addiction, or you have a strong family history of alcoholism
  • You've had a hemorrhagic stroke (when a blood vessel in your brain leaks or ruptures)
  • 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

Deciding about drinking

If you don't drink alcohol, don't start because of potential health benefits. However, if you drink a light to moderate amount and you're healthy, you can probably continue as long as you drink responsibly. Be sure to check with your doctor about what's right for your health and safety.

Oct. 26, 2019 See more In-depth

See also

  1. MIND diet may cut Alzheimer's risk
  2. 3 diet changes women over 50 should make right now
  3. 3 key changes in the new Nutrition Facts label
  4. Healthy-eating habits
  5. Reduce sugar in your diet
  6. Acai berries
  7. Added sugar
  8. Alkaline water
  9. Are energy drinks bull?
  10. Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes
  11. Autism spectrum disorder and digestive symptoms
  12. Bad food habits at work? Get back on track in 5 easy steps
  13. Best oil for cooking?
  14. 2015-2020 Dietary guidelines
  15. Boost your calcium levels without dairy? Yes you can!
  16. Breast-feeding nutrition: Tips for moms
  17. Caffeine: How much is too much?
  18. Is caffeine dehydrating?
  19. Calorie calculator
  20. The role of diet and exercise in preventing Alzheimer's disease
  21. Can whole-grain foods lower blood pressure?
  22. Carbohydrates
  23. Chart of high-fiber foods
  24. Cholesterol: Top foods to improve your numbers
  25. Coconut water: Healthy drink or marketing scam?
  26. Coffee and health
  27. Diet and overactive bladder
  28. Diet soda: How much is too much?
  29. Dietary fats
  30. Dietary fiber
  31. Prickly pear cactus
  32. Does soy affect breast cancer risk?
  33. Don't get tricked by these 3 heart-health myths
  34. Don't go cuckoo for coconut water
  35. Make healthy snack choices
  36. Eat more of these key nutrients
  37. Eating well with COPD
  38. Eggs: Bad for cholesterol?
  39. Energy drinks
  40. Fat grams
  41. For a healthy gut, feed the good bugs
  42. Fiber: Soluble or insoluble?
  43. Fish and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  44. Fit more fiber into your diet
  45. Foods for healthy skin
  46. Grape juice health benefits
  47. Is chocolate healthy?
  48. Healthy heart for life: Avoiding heart disease
  49. Healthy-eating tip: Don't forget fiber
  50. High-fructose corn syrup
  51. High-protein diets
  52. Alcohol during the holidays: 4 ways to sip smarter
  53. Holiday weight: How to maintain, not gain
  54. Takeout containers
  55. Is there more to hydration than water?
  56. Juicing is no substitute for whole foods
  57. Juicing
  58. Depression and diet
  59. Limit bad fats, one step at a time
  60. Make food labels required reading
  61. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  62. MUFAs
  63. Multigrain vs. whole grain
  64. Need a snack? Go nuts!
  65. Need more fiber? Take 3 steps
  66. Nutrition Facts label
  67. Nutrition rules that will fuel your workout
  68. Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health
  69. Omega-3 in fish
  70. Omega-6 fatty acids
  71. Phenylalanine
  72. Play it safe when taking food to a loved one in the hospital
  73. Protein: Heart-healthy sources
  74. Healthy eating plans
  75. Raw water: Risky fad?
  76. Reduce sugar in your diet
  77. Health foods
  78. Portion control
  79. Planning healthy meals
  80. High-fiber diet
  81. Social eating can be healthy and enjoyable
  82. Sodium
  83. Sodium: Look beyond the saltshaker
  84. Stevia
  85. Tap water or bottled water: Which is better?
  86. Taurine in energy drinks
  87. Time to cut back on caffeine?
  88. Time to scale back on salt?
  89. Trans fat
  90. Underweight: Add pounds healthfully
  91. Want a healthier dinnertime? Science says change your eating space
  92. Daily water requirement
  93. Functional foods
  94. What is a good ileostomy diet?
  95. What is clean eating?
  96. What's considered moderate alcohol use?
  97. What's the difference between juicing and blending?
  98. Why does diet matter after bariatric surgery?
  99. Working out? Remember to drink up
  100. Yerba mate