Moderate drinking: alcohol limits, benefits, risks

Moderate drinking: alcohol limits, benefits, risks

Moderate drinking is defined as up to four alcoholic drinks for men and three for women in any single day, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA), and a maximum of 14 drinks for men and 7 drinks for women per week.

The National Health Service (NHS), UK, states that:
  • Men should not regularly consume more than 3-4 units of alcohol per day
  • Women should not regularly consume more than 2-3 units per day

Regularly means either everyday or most days of the week.

The NHS defines 1 unit of alcohol as 10ml (8g) of pure alcohol.

Why is the alcohol limit lower for women?

Studies have shown that females begin having alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than males. There are four main reasons:

A pint of beer (5.2% alcohol) contains

nearly 3 units of alcohol

  • Pound-for-pound, females have less water in their bodies than males. Alcohol disperses in body water.
  • Women generally weigh less than men. The threshold for "safe" alcohol consumption is closely linked to body mass. There is less tissue in women to absorb the alcohol.
  • Women usually have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (AHD) than men. AHD is a chemical that metabolizes (breaks down) alcohol in the liver. Consequently, alcohol remains in a woman's system longer, and accumulates faster.
  • Hormonal factors probably also play a role in making women more susceptible than men to the effects of alcohol, experts say. Studies have found that with the same amount of drink, blood alcohol concentrations are at their highest just before menstruation and at their lowest on the first day after menstruation.

According to the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education at the University of Notre Dame, IN, "a woman will absorb about 30% more alcohol into her bloodstream than a man of the same weight who has consumed an equal amount."

How many units of alcohol are there in each drink?

It is not easy to tell how many units of alcohol there are in each drink. Drinks can vary in size and alcohol content. The NHS Alcohol Unit Calculator can help you determine how many units there are in just 1 or several drinks.

Slide the cursor below the "zero" to the right to get choose number of drinks.

Alcohol unit calculator

Benefits of 'moderate' alcohol consumption

A medium (175ml) glass of 12% red wine, such as the one shown, has about 2 units of alcohol. A large (250ml) glass has about 3 units

We read today about many studies extolling the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.

However, many of the messages are mixed; while on the one hand we are told alcohol in moderation can have some heart benefits, we also read that alcohol intake is associated with a higher risk of heart damage, cancer, psychiatric problems and liver disease.

When studies show the harms associated with consuming alcohol, they nearly always refer to binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or alcoholism.

When it comes to drinking alcohol and expecting a health benefit, moderation is the key. If you currently drink no alcohol at all, you should not start because of the health benefits, doctors say.

The potential benefits of regular, moderate alcohol consumption are:

  • Stroke - a study carried out at Brigham and Women's Hospital and published in the journal Stroke found that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption may lower the risk of stroke in women.

    Another study found that red wine may protect the brain from stroke damage.

  • Dementia - a team at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that moderate alcohol intake reduced the risk of dementia in older adults.
  • Depression - a study on 2,683 men and 2,822 women aged 55 to 80 years found that regular moderate wine drinking may reduced the risk of developing depression. The Spanish researchers reported in the journal BMC Medicine that people who drank from 2 to 7 glasses of wine per week were much less likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression.
  • Colon and breast cancers - regular, moderate red wine drinkers are 50% less likely to develop bowel tumors compared to people who rarely or never drink wine, a team from the University of Leicester, England, found.

    In another study, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles identified a link between regular red wine consumption and a lower risk of breast cancer. The scientists explained in the Journal of Women's Health that chemicals found in the seeds and skins of red grapes and red wine reduce estrogen levels while raising testosterone in premenopausal women, resulting in a reduced likelihood of developing breast cancer.

  • Cardiovascular - several studies have shown that moderate, regular alcohol intake is good for cardiovascular health. Investigators at University College London reported in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health that moderate drinking provides a significant cardioprotective benefit compared to abstinence or heavy drinking among people with with poor health behaviours (little exercise, poor diet and smokers). However, they added that the benefit was not detected among people with good health behaviors.

    An Italian study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that moderate wine and beer consumption reduced the risk of cardiovascular events, but not spirits.

    Scientists at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals found that moderate consumption of both vodka and wine can reduce cardiovascular risk, with wine offering greater protection.

Risks of alcohol consumption

While the consumption of alcohol in moderation appears to have some health benefits, it is important to remember that too much can be devastating for the health, and even life-threatening.

Too much alcohol can lead to:

  • Depression
  • Dementia
  • Mental health problems
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Anemia
  • Arrhythmias
  • Cancer of the breast, colon and rectum, liver, esophagus, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), mouth, and probably the pancreas, according to the American Cancer Society
  • Cardiomyopathy (chronic disease of the heart muscle)
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fatty liver
  • Gout
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Nerve damage (alcoholic neuropathy)
  • Seizures
  • Stroke.

Video: Heart benefits of drinking alcohol

Cardiologist Dr. Matt DeVane explains the potential benefits of alcohol for your heart and emphasizes the importance of moderation.

Further reading

  • "Wine: Health Benefits and Health Risks"
  • "What Is An Alcoholic? How To Treat Alcoholism
  • "Alcohol Poisoning: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment"
  • "What is alcoholic liver disease?"
  • "Why Do Moderate Drinkers Live Longer Than Abstainers?"

Moderate drinking linked to heart damage in the elderly

Elderly men who consume at least two alcoholic beverages daily may be damaging their heart, according to a new study, with elderly women at risk of heart damage with just one drink a day.

Moderate alcohol benefits vary by race and sex, finds huge US survey

Compared with no alcohol consumption, sensible levels of drinking have correlated with better heart health. However, a new analysis has revealed that a cardioprotective link from moderate drinking is not the same for people of African ancestry as it is for white ethnicity, and nor across the sexes.

Benefits of moderate drinking 'may be overestimated'

Studies have hailed light to moderate alcohol consumption for numerous health benefits, including reduced likelihood of cardiovascular diseases and all-cause mortality. But in a new study published in The BMJ, researchers claim such benefits may have been "overestimated."

What Is A Moderate Amount Of Alcohol? (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Psychiatry