Drink Up: Alcohol and Moderation

Wine with dinner is healthy -- or is it? Assessing the role of alcohol in our health and life can be tricky business, especially for women.

On the purely medical front, conflicting findings abound. It's clear that excessive alcohol intake, more than two drinks daily for women (a drink being one 12-ounce beer, 6 ounces of wine, or 1 1/4 ounces of liquor) ups your risk of liver disease, malnutrition, stroke, high blood pressure, and cancer, not to mention alcoholism.

Even moderate amounts can have negative effects such as increasing breast cancer risk -- most likely due to alcohol's estrogenic effects. But moderate drinking (an average of one drink or less per day) also confers some powerful health benefits, such as lowering your risk of heart disease, the number one killer of women.

Health Effects
Alcohol can have wide-ranging health effects. To understand what that means for you, consider your other risk factors and talk to your doctor.

There seems to be a linear relationship between the amount of alcohol a woman drinks and her risk of breast cancer. In other words, the more you drink, the greater your risk. In an analysis of multiple studies, women who drank 3/4 to one drink per day increased their risk of cancer by 9 percent compared with nondrinkers. Women who drank two to five drinks increased their risk by 41 percent.

Heart Health
Moderate alcohol consumption is good for your heart. A meta-analysis that looked at 42 studies consistently showed that one drink a day was beneficial, reducing heart disease by almost 25 percent.

Bone Health
The current consensus is that consuming two to four drinks per day can increase your risk of fracturing a hip by 44 percent. Those who consume one to two drinks per week, however, have increased bone density compared with people who don't drink at all.

Mental Health
Alcohol seems like a great stress reducer, but it typically serves as an escape -- one that brings a cascade of unhealthy effects. Although it may make you feel better in the moment, keep in mind that it's a depressant; overall, it can make mood and depression worse.

Explore Your Drinking Patterns
Whether you drink daily, socially, or somewhere in between, you'll find benefit from taking an honest look at your habits.

  • Take stock: Consider the behavior of your family and friends, including the family you grew up in. Do you see healthy or unhealthy patterns in either, or both? What are the group values? Then consider your personality. Do you have addictive tendencies? Is there a history of addiction or alcoholism in your family?

  • Do the math: Without altering your behavior, take note of how much alcohol you typically consume. Try to be honest with yourself.

  • Ask the hard questions: Think about your relationship with alcohol, not just your behavior. Do you regularly look forward to having a drink? Do you drink out of habit? Do you find reasons to drink? Is it your primary activity when socializing, or connecting with your partner? Answering yes to any of these questions does not suggest an inherent problem, but rather is cause for further inquiry.

  • Take action: Consider giving up alcohol for a month. Observe how you feel, and with this data, make a conscious choice about what a healthy relationship with alcohol is for you.

  • Repeat: If you've discovered areas of concern in your relationship with alcohol, do this cycle often -- at least twice a year. Take note of changes, and talk to your physician or another health professional who understands alcohol.
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