Thinking About Drinking

Benefits and Risks
By Shanti Argue

It seems as though everywhere you look there’s a joke about how inseparable women are from their wine. “Wine is to women as duct tape is to men—it fixes everything.” Gift shops carry mugs reading, “This might be wine,” and oversized wine glasses that say, “Mommy’s sippy cup.” Even internet memes tout wine as the solution for every problem, from work stress to parenting— “Wine makes everything possible” or “There’s no problem that six glasses of wine can’t solve.”

There’s an idea that wine is healthy—gotta get those antioxidants—and that it’s sophisticated, classy and harmless. After all, humans have been drinking wine for thousands of years! It’s even a component of the healthy Mediterranean diet. But how much is too much? 

Some people absolutely should not drink at all, depending on medical and family history. But there’s a huge range of drinking habits between total avoidance and falling down drunk.

HEALTH BENEFITS

First of all, the benefits don’t necessarily outweigh the risks, so don’t feel you should start drinking if you don’t already. However, if you enjoy an occasional glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail, you will be pleased to know that there are a number of studies that show moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle. 

Red wine in particular has been shown to correlate with living longer and slightly increasing omega-3 fatty acid levels. Moderate alcohol consumption has been linked with benefits such as possibly reducing risk of ischemic strokes, heart disease and diabetes, although it’s not clear whether it’s the alcohol that makes the difference or corresponding lifestyle factors such as taking time to relax and socialize. 

However, every study that shows a potential benefit has only shown a benefit with light to moderate consumption. If you exceed that, you are hurting your body, not helping.

For women, the safe upper limit for “moderate” consumption is one drink per day or no more than seven per week. More than that is considered heavy or high-risk drinking. Make sure to measure; a serving of red wine is 5 ounces. 

WOMEN’S BODIES ARE DIFFERENT FROM MEN’S

The obvious hazards of excessive alcohol use for anyone include vomiting, alcoholism, drunk driving and fetal alcohol syndrome. But in yet another instance of gender bias (this one biological, not social), women’s bodies react differently to alcohol than men’s. The limit of seven drinks a week for women (as opposed to 14 for men) is about more than just body size and composition. 

Metabolic and hormonal differences allow men to process alcohol more efficiently. This means that women can have alcohol circulating in their system for a longer period of time—even when they drink less than men—putting them at higher risk for health complications like dementia, memory loss, heart damage and cirrhosis of the liver. Mayo Clinic’s web page on cancer prevention says, “The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer.” 

CUTTING BACK

If drinking alcohol becomes a daily habit, if one glass becomes two or three, if you find yourself suffering headaches or feeling sluggish in the morning or if you just want to improve your overall health, cutting back on alcohol consumption can have a positive effect on how you look and feel.

Here are a few benefits you might notice within days:

• Better sleep: Alcohol can prevent your brain from experiencing the deep, restorative stages of sleep.

• Better hydration: Alcohol is a diuretic, causing you to lose water as the alcohol is flushed from your body.

• Better skin: Alcohol affects estrogen and other hormones that can cause breakouts. Plus dehydration causes skin to look dull and makes fine lines more noticeable.

• A slimmer waistline: The calories in drinks can add up, and alcohol in particular contributes to the accumulation of abdominal fat.

• Better mood: Too much alcohol interferes with neurotransmitters—the messengers in your brain—harming your mental health. So if you’re already feeling sad or anxious, alcohol is likely to make you feel even worse. 

YOU MAKE THE RULES

Many women find it helpful to establish their own “rule book” to ensure moderate alcohol consumption. Here are some ideas:

• Start by measuring your servings. See how much you are actually consuming.

• Be mindful about when you choose to drink.

• Be mindful about what you drink and how it fits into your overall health and goals.

• Give your body a rest from alcohol periodically. Alcohol is a toxin that your body has to work to process. Taking a “dry” week or month every now and then allows your body to recuperate. 

• Keep a weekly tally with a goal to stay under. 

• Have a glass of water before and after a serving of alcohol to help offset some of the dehydrating effects and ensure that you aren’t accidentally drinking too much because you feel thirsty.

• Choose quality over quantity. Sip slowly, savor and relax—it’s an indulgence. Be grateful for the opportunity to socialize and unwind.  

• Only order one drink in a restaurant or bar. This habit will save you money too!

• Order your mixed drink in a larger glass, but with only one serving of alcohol so it lasts longer. For example, a Gin and Tonic with twice as much tonic.

• Only drink with dinner, and limit yourself to a single serving.

• Don’t use alcohol to deal with stress. Call a friend instead.

• Don’t consume alcohol on consecutive days. If you had a glass of wine yesterday, skip it today.

• Don’t store alcohol at home. Limit yourself to a drink when you’re out with friends, or buy a special bottle of wine for a special dinner.

True or False
Red wine is more concentrated, so it has more resveratrol—a plant compound that acts as an antioxidant.  Answer: False. Grapes and berries actually contain more resveratrol, so you get more health benefits from a bowl of fruit.

What is a mocktail?  Simply a “mock” cocktail—a mixed drink with no alcohol. Make your own Easy Mojito Mocktail:
Ingredients:
1 tsp. sugar
4-5 mint leaves
Juice from 1 lime
Soda water
To make: “Muddle” (or mash together) the mint and sugar. Combine in a glass with lime juice and ice, then top off with soda water to taste.

Planning a night out in Rochester?
Check out these local nonalcoholic options:
• Bleu Duck Kitchen has a rotating menu of handcrafted mocktails
• Cameo at The Castle offers a mocktail called The Placebo
• Chester’s Kitchen and Bar features: Teatime, Peach Mule and Rosemary Blueberry Smash
• The Half Barrel serves Fever Tree Ginger Beer, Kaliber N/A Beer, and San Pellegrino flavored waters
• Thesis Brewery has Kombucha (fermented tea)

Alcoholism is a serious medical condition. If you think you need help reducing or stopping alcohol use, there are many local resources:

• MN Adult & Teen Challenge Women’s Program in Rochester: 507-288-3733
• The Gables (women only): 507-282-2500
• Recovery is happening: 507-218-4773
• Empower CTC: 507-292-1379
• Fountain Centers: 507-252-0818
• Common Ground: 507-281-0023
• Mayo Foundation Addiction Services: 507-255-4151

Out of curiosity, I poured myself a glass of wine at home, then dumped it into a measuring cup to see what I was typically serving myself. It was nearly 7 ounces! If I decided to have a second glass, I’d be looking at 14 ounces, which is nearly three servings in one night. It would be very easy to exceed seven servings per week.