Family get-togethers...social occasions...the holidays...as you celebrate, keep your spirits high, but the alcohol in check. Here, we talked with R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., professor of medicine and public health at Boston University School of Medicine, about what he considers healthy drinking.

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It's easy to drink too much on a special occasion, like New Year’s Eve. Is that unhealthy?

While regular moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk for heart disease and stroke, it’s easy to overdo on special occasions like the holidays, and especially on New Year’s Eve, according to Dr. Ellison. "You may be surprised to learn that more than two drinks within two hours is considered binge-drinking. That means you're drinking too fast for your body to metabolize the alcohol." Not only does binge-drinking diminish the long-term protective effects of alcohol, he says, “it can lead to intoxication, unwanted sex, drunk driving, and other risky behaviors.”

Could you elaborate on the health benefits of alcohol?

“Regular consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol lowers your risk for two of the top causes of death in America—heart disease and stroke,” says Dr. Ellison. “According to population studies, moderate drinkers have less heart disease than people who abstain.”

All forms of alcohol, whether beer, wine or spirits, increase HDL, the "good" cholesterol that protects against heart disease. Alcohol also makes blood less likely to clot in the short term and helps to break up small clots, reducing the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke.

"Red wine is particularly beneficial," says Dr. Ellison. "The grape skins used to make the wine contain polyphenols that have antioxidants and other disease-fighting properties." There is also evidence that alcohol may help prevent diabetes and dementia, although the mechanisms haven’t been fully worked out.

"The bugaboo is cancer," says Dr. Ellison. "Some studies show that even moderate drinking slightly increases the risks of breast and colon cancers." Binge-drinking is particularly dangerous: "Over the long term, frequent binge-drinking increases the risk of breast cancer.

However, recent data suggest that maintaining an adequate intake of folate (from foods or supplements) may block the slight increase in these cancers." Bottom line? "Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle—eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet, exercising, avoiding smoking and losing excess weight —drinking alcohol in moderation may provide additional benefits."

How much alcohol is safe to consume?

"There’s no such thing as a safe or appropriate amount of alcohol for everyone," explains Dr. Ellison. "Alcohol affects individuals differently, depending on a person’s age, gender, weight and health. The speed of drinking and whether food is consumed also play a role. In general, the dietary guidelines for Americans suggest no more than one or two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women."

What constitutes a drink? "Typically, it’s five ounces of wine; twelve ounces of regular beer; or one-and-a-half ounces of eighty-proof distilled spirits. Each contains about twelve grams of alcohol." Check out this tool from whatisadrink.com to see what one drink looks like.

Who should not drink?

"Designated drivers should not drink. And it's probably a good idea for people with seizure disorders, anticoagulation problems or severe liver disease to abstain as well. Drinking isn't encouraged for pregnant women, although fetal alcohol syndrome is much more of a problem for pregnant women who drink heavily than for those who drink lightly or moderately. And, of course, teens and children should not be drinking."

If I am going to drink on a special occasion, how can I do so responsibly and healthily?

Decide on a few drinks that you really want, and skip the rest. Sip your drink, don’t gulp it, so that you savor the taste and control the amount of alcohol that enters your bloodstream. Limit yourself by having just one drink in a two-hour period. When you’re mixing and mingling with other guests, that should be easy to do.

Try these tips:

  • Drink plenty of water between drinks to prevent dehydration and the chances of a hangover.
  • As you drink, munch on appetizers (or eat a meal) with some fat. The fat in nuts, meats and cheeses, for example, coats your stomach, slowing the absorption of alcohol.
  • Remember that drinking isn't the main event. Your aim is to have a good time with people you care about.

By Natasha Persaud

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Dec 2007

Last Modified: 30 Sep 2014