Does one drink a day damage your health?

You’ve no doubt heard the common wisdom that a drink at the end of a long day does you good.

Maybe it’s the antioxidants in wine you swear by, or the relaxing qualities of a beer. Perhaps just the taste makes you feel better.

But the idea low-level drinking is good for your health is actually a myth, says Professor Tanya Chikritzhs, from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute.

Earlier research had suggested this but more recent studies have cast serious doubt on the idea.

In fact, alcohol is a carcinogen, a substance that can cause cancers.

One drink a day teaser

Cancers linked to alcohol consumption:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Oesophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

And you might be surprised how little alcohol needs to pass your lips before you start to risk your health.

“From the very first sip, even at very low levels of less than half a drink a day, you can experience an increased risk for a range of cancers,”

Professor Chikritzhs said.

One example for which new evidence has emerged in recent years is prostate cancer.

And it seems in this case, even very low-level drinking — one to two drinks every 10 days over a number of years – can increase a man’s risk of developing the cancer by eight per cent compared to someone who has never drunk alcohol.

Professor Chikritzhs said in the last 20 years there had been rapid advances in our understanding of the links between alcohol and cancer, and a growing body of evidence linking increased alcohol consumption and cancer risk.

“For a whole range of cancers, seven or eight of them, we can demonstrate a linear dose response relationship,” she said.

This means as the amount you drink each day increases, there’s a corresponding increase in your risk of developing cancer.

There’s no level of alcohol consumption that’s completely safe.

If you don’t want any increased risk of developing cancer (above what you might have already from genetics or the environment you live in), you’d have to stop drinking altogether.

National guidelines

The National Health and Medical Research Council’s alcohol guidelines say you shouldn’t drink more than two standard drinks a day.

By doing so, you keep your lifetime risk of death from alcohol-related disease or injury below one in 100, even if the drinking is daily.

That doesn’t mean there’s no risk, just that it’s relatively low — at a level acceptable to most people and on par with the benchmarks by which we test water quality, Professor Chikritzhs said.

The other thing to think about is exactly how much a standard drink is — because it doesn’t always equate to a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.

In fact, most full-strength beers will equate to around 1.5 standard drinks, and the average restaurant serve of red wine is 1.6.

In case you were wondering, the “two standard drinks” limit is not an average; you can’t drink 10 drinks in a single night, then nothing the rest of the week and kid yourself you’re still within the guidelines.

There’s actually a separate NHMRC guideline for single “occasions” of drinking, and it’s mostly about factors other than your cancer risk.

It states that no more than four standard drinks should be consumed to limit the risk of alcohol-related injury stemming from that drinking session alone.

What about the health benefits?

So what about all those studies we heard about that suggested benefits of a glass or two?

Possible mechanisms by which alcohol could act as a health tonic include it working to boost levels of “good” fats in the blood, increasing the body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin, or decreasing inflammation (which has been linked to a range of illnesses, including heart disease).

Professor Chikritzhs said there were two camps in this area — those who believe low-level drinking confers such benefits, and those who think the studies demonstrating these benefits are flawed.

She put herself firmly in the sceptics camp.

The problem is that studies that appeared to show a drink or two was good for us didn’t fully take into account factors other than alcohol that might influence the results.

For instance, some groups of people who didn’t drink looked to be in worse health than others who drank a little.

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But this group included non-drinkers who’d had to give up booze because of problems with their health (and often these very health problems were a result of their former drinking habit).

This created an illusion that those who drink more are healthier, Professor Chikritzhs said.

Cutting back

So if you’re someone who enjoys a daily drink, is there is any reason to consider cutting down?

It depends on your approach to health risks, Professor Chikritzhs said.

“For some people there are individual considerations. The genetics behind alcoholism is complex but you might want to keep a closer eye on your drinking if you have parents or siblings who had alcohol [dependence] problems.”

And you might be extra vigilant if you are personally very concerned about certain cancers that are linked to alcohol.

Even consuming less than two standard drinks a day is estimated to cause more than 2000 deaths in Australia every year — most of them cancers (there are more than 40,000 cancer deaths in total in Australia each year, according to Cancer Council Australia).

And she said it was vitally important Australians were honest with themselves when it comes to how much they drink.

“They’ll think about what they usually do but forget about the big night on Friday they had.”

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