Guru Kate: Are there actually health benefits inherent in alcohol?

Illustration by Casey Kleeb

Boiling this question down to the molecules, ethanol itself does not carry any benefits. Ethanol is the “active” ingredient in vodka, gin, wine, rum and other alcohols. It requires special detoxification by the liver when ingested so it doesn’t poison the drinker. In people without the detoxifying protein called “alcohol dehydrogenase,” drinking any amount of ethanol can cause a massive reaction including gut-wrenching pain, because ethanol is a biological toxin.

For those of us who can digest ethanol, however, there have been rumored benefits. Popular comments include, “I’m drinking this wine for my heart,” or, “This beer will reduce my stress level and therefore prolong my life.”

It’s a bit of a stretch when you pound a six-pack in one sitting.

However, according to a large literature review completed in 2011, young men and women should be praising wine for its slight capacity to improve cognitive ability. In older populations, light to moderate drinking can decrease the potential for all types of dementia.

Before you jump for joy and race to the Brown Jug, there is fine print.

The observed increase in cognitive ability was very small, and only occurred with light to moderate drinking. As soon as the drinking level passed into heavy, there were no advantages. And according to a study conducted by Marinus Verbaten in a 2009 issue of Human Psychopharmacology (not included in that aforementioned literature review), the benefits of moderate alcohol drinking really only belong to the elderly.

So take your time getting to the liquor store, since the cognitive benefits won’t happen until you hit your 60s. Starting around then, people who don’t drink at all actually have higher cognitive decline than moderate drinkers, according to the Verbaten study.

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If you are wondering where the conversation about antioxidants from alcohol comes in, that is a fairly poor excuse for drinking. Antioxidants are found in plenty of everyday foods, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Those who don’t drink alcohol are not nutritionally deficient. In fact, most nutritional deficiencies are seen in people who drink too much.

Lastly, there are plenty of other stress-busting activities other than cracking open a brewski. Plan a fantasy vacation, volunteer, take a walk or make a list of things you are thankful for. The best part? All of these things are completely free, can be done with a friend and are completely legal if you’re under the legal drinking age.

Author’s note: In the 2009 study, light drinking is less than 7 drinks per week, moderate drinking is 7-21 drinks per week, and heavy drinking is 21-40 drinks per week. Each drink contained 12 grams of alcohol, equivalent to a little less than 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.