Alcohol, drinking and your health

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Friday, 28 November 2008.

Alcohol, drinking and your health
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Celebrating with a glass of bubbly? Having friends over for a drink? Enjoying a few at the office get together? Make sure you know the risks and rewards of alcohol if you want to stay healthy.

Size does matter!

Super-size wine glasses and single-serve mixer drinks encourage us to drink too much and these days, there seem to be more occasions to imbibe than ever. And with the major retailers now selling alcohol via warehouse outlets and discount supermarkets, it's more widely available and cheaper than in the past. But remember that - while enjoyable and relaxing - alcohol is a two-edged sword.

The good news - health benefits

Alcohol in moderation has well-known health benefits - there's hardly a red wine drinker in the country who hasn't gleefully retold the theory of the "French paradox".  Which goes like this - the French, despite a love of rich high-fat fare like cheeses, butter, pastries and pate, have one of the world's lowest rates of heart disease, thanks to the copious quantities of the red wine they enjoy.

Red wine and antioxidants

Red wine has been hailed as a heart protector because it helps prevent blood clots, keeps the blood vessels "elastic" under increased blood flow and is rich in phyto-chemicals which can "mop up" harmful toxins. Whether it's due to red wine only or is simply an effect of alcohol itself is hotly debated.

The Dubbo Study, one of the few Australian studies into alcohol, tracked the health and drinking habits of over 2800 men and women over 60 for 9 years. It found that any sort of alcohol extended your life span and almost halved the risk of heart disease. The effect was strongest for men - the men who drank three glasses of beer a day lived longer, had more friends and social networks, and were less likely to have heart problems than abstainers.

Alcohol and cholesterol

So it's not all bad news. Other studies show that alcohol itself can elevate the "good" HDL-cholesterol and protect against stroke. In fact, one or two drinks a day halved the risk of having a stroke in the over 60s in a significant US study.

Light-to-moderate alcohol use can also help rid the body of a bacteria that causes most stomach ulcers. Those of us who drink more than 7 glasses of wine a week have a 17 per cent lower chance of being infected with Helicobacter pylori than non-drinkers, according to a UK study of over 10,000 people. Those consuming 3 to 6 beers per week also had the same lowered risk .

Watch those tipples - the health risks

All the good news about alcohol should not be taken as permission over imbibe. Too much alcohol can inflame the stomach and pancreas while depleting the body of B vitamins, as well as the minerals zinc (needed for the prostate) and magnesium.

High blood pressure and cancer

Alcohol also raises blood pressure and sets the scene for cirrhosis of the liver (although not all heavy drinkers develop this). It's also been linked to breast cancer and can increase the risk of mouth cancer.

Alcohol and obesity

Finally alcohol is a big contributor to obesity. Pure alcohol is a concentrated source of kilojoules, having almost twice that of carbohydrate or protein. It also seems to encourage fat storage rather than fat burning. A glass of bubbly leaves you with 405kJ equivalent to one thick slice of bread, while a vodka mixer drink bottle stacks on a huge 700 kJ.

Standard drink sizes

As often said, the key to healthy alcohol consumption is to take it easy - moderation. A standard glass a day can be beneficial but after two or three drinks the benefits disappear.

Remember a standard drink is any drink containing 10 grams of alcohol, regardless of container size or alcohol type (ie, beer, wine, or spirit). Check out what they mean by a 'standard drink' and whether you're drinking more than you realise at our handy summary page.



How may kilojoules in your favourite drink?

  • Sparkling wine, 150ml glass, 405
  • Wine, dry, 150ml glass, 425
  • Wine, sweet, 150ml glass, 415
  • Wine cooler, 250ml glass, 550
  • Sherry, dry, 50ml glass, 235
  • Sherry, sweet, 50ml glass, 330
  • Spirits (brandy, whiskey, gin, vodka, bourbon), 30ml nip, 260
  • Beer, standard, 375ml can, 565
  • Beer, light, 375ml can, 395
  • Cider, dry, 200ml glass, 290
  • Port, 50ml glass, 340
  • Liqueur, 30ml glass, 375

Non-alcoholic drinks:

  • Soft drink, all types, 250ml glass, 440
  • Diet soft drink, 250ml glass, 2
  • Mineral or soda water, 250ml glass, 0
  • Flavoured mineral water, 250ml glass, 400
  • Tonic water, 250ml glass, 380
  • Orange juice, 250ml glass, 365
  • Pineapple juice, 250ml glass, 490
  • Tomato juice, 250ml glass, 200  

References cited: 

• Simons LA et al. Moderate alcohol intake is associated with survival in the elderly: the Dubbo Study. Med J Aust 2000:173:121-24.
• Djousse J et al. Alcohol consumption and the risk of ischemic stroke: The Framingham study. Stroke 2002;33:907-12.
• Breener H et al. Inverse graded relation between alcohol and action infection with Helicobacter pylori. Amer J Epidemiology 1999; 149(6):571-5.