Alcohol: Weighing risks and potential benefits

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

By Mayo Clinic Staff

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. Indeed, for some people avoiding alcohol is the best course — the possible benefits don't outweigh the risks.

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

If it seems confusing, that's because the evidence about the possible health benefits of alcohol isn't certain. Any potential benefits of alcohol are relatively small and may not apply to all individuals.

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

Defining moderate

Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults 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)

Pros and cons of moderate alcohol use

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

  • Reducing your risk of developing and dying from 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

While moderate alcohol use may be of benefit for individuals who have existing risk factors for heart disease, you can take other steps to improve your heart health besides drinking. For example, 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 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 abuse, 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.

Nov. 06, 2018 See more In-depth

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