How Much Alcohol Is Too Much Alcohol? It's Less Than You Think

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A glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away, right?

A few drinks each day may not be bad for you, and they may actually improve your health. Or so we've been told. And as a result, many of us don’t think twice about tossing back a couple of glasses or wine or a few beers after work.

However, we should be thinking twice. New research on alcohol and mortality is changing the story on "moderate drinking".

In particular, a new meta-study on the risks of alcohol consumption involving 600,000 participants, published recently in The Lancet, suggests that levels of alcohol previously thought to be relatively harmless are linked with an earlier death. What’s more, drinking small amounts of alcohol may not carry all the long-touted protective effects on the cardiovascular system.

“For years, there was a sense that there was an optimal level which was not drinking no alcohol but drinking moderately that led to the best health outcomes,” said Duke University’s Dan Blazer, an author of the paper. “I think we’re going to have to rethink that a bit.”

Alongside this study have come disturbing reports of the alcohol industry’s involvement in funding science that may have helped drinking look more favorable, as well as a growing worry that many people are naive about alcohol’s health effects. How many people know, for example, that as far back as 1988, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer designated alcohol a level-one carcinogen? Some say too few.

The upper safe limit for drinking may be lower than you think

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The Lancet's meta-study put together data on nearly 600,000 current drinkers (again, to overcome the “sick quitter” problem) from 83 studies in 19 countries. They wanted to test what level of drinking was associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.

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###Drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol — about seven standard glasses of wine or beer — per week was associated with an increased in risk of death for all causes.

In the US, the government suggests men can drink double that amount — up to two drinks per day — but advise women who are not pregnant to drink up to one drink per day.

A person’s risk of death shot up as they drank more.

People who consumed between seven and 14 drinks per week had a lower life expectancy at age 40 of about six months; people who drank between 14 and 24 drinks per week had one to two years shaved off their lives; and people who imbibed more than 24 drinks a week had a lower life expectancy of four to five years.

Alcohol’s health effects are real, and they are serious

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This new research is a reminder of something we often forget: Alcohol’s health effects are real, and they are serious. Drinking increases the risk of everything from liver disease to high blood pressure, dependency issues, and memory and mental health problems. As we've suggested before, our society may be normalizing our culture's alcoholism. And Vox's German Lopez has reported, alcohol-related deaths have been going up in America — an under-appreciated fact that’s been lost in the coverage of opioids.

“Not a lot of people know alcohol is a level-one carcinogen,” Harvard Medical School addiction researcher John F. Kelly told me. Any amount of drinking is associated with an increased breast cancer risk — something journalist Stephanie Mencimer admitted in Mother Jones she didn’t know until she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. “While doctors have frequently admonished me for putting cream in my coffee lest it clog my arteries ... not once has any doctor suggested I might face a higher cancer risk if I didn’t cut back on drinking,” she wrote. For men and women, drinking is also known to increase the risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon cancer.

Cheers to the weekend...

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So when the weekend rolls around, and you want to cut loose, it’s not easy to face up to these facts. Alcohol is a huge part of our culture, and the problems it can carry aren’t always easy to swallow. But these new studies should sound a cautionary note, Blazer said.

“The idea that I can drink three drinks per day and it’ll help me live longer — I think you have to eliminate that from your thinking. What we need to keep in mind is that alcohol is dangerous — and the danger of alcohol doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.”