Monday, January 28, 2013

How much alcohol is optimal? Maybe less than you think

I have been regularly recommending to users of the software HCE () to include a column in their health data reflecting their alcohol consumption. Why? Because I suspect that alcohol consumption is behind many of what we call the “diseases of affluence”.

A while ago I recall watching an interview with a centenarian, a very lucid woman. When asked about her “secret” to live a long life, she said that she added a little bit of whiskey to her coffee every morning. It was something like a tablespoon of whiskey, or about 15 g, which amounted to approximately 6 g of ethanol every single day.

Well, she might have been drinking very close to the optimal amount of alcohol per day for the average person, if the study reviewed in this post is correct.

Studies of the effect of alcohol consumption on health generally show results in terms of averages within fixed ranges of consumption. For example, they will show average mortality risks for people consuming 1, 2, 3 etc. drinks per day. These studies suggest that there is a J-curve relationship between alcohol consumption and health (). That is, drinking a little is better than not drinking; and drinking a lot is worse than drinking a little.

However, using “rough” ranges of 1, 2, 3 etc. drinks per day prevents those studies from getting to a more fine-grained picture of the beneficial effects of alcohol consumption.

Contrary to popular belief, the positive health effects of moderate alcohol consumption have little, if anything, to do with polyphenols such as resveratrol. Resveratrol, once believed to be the fountain of youth, is found in the skin of red grapes.

It is in fact the alcohol content that has positive effects, apparently reducing the incidence of coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, stroke, dementia, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and all-cause mortality. Raynaud's phenomenon is associated with poor circulation in the extremities (e.g., toes, fingers), which in some cases can progress to gangrene.

In most studies of the effects of alcohol consumption on health, the J-curves emerge from visual inspection of the plots of averages across ranges of consumption. Rarely you find studies where nonlinear relationships are “discovered” by software tools such as WarpPLS (), with effects being adjusted according.

You do find, however, some studies that fit reasonably justified functions to the data. Di Castelnuovo and colleagues’ study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2006 (), is probably the most widely cited among these studies. This study is a meta-analysis; i.e., a study that builds on various other empirical studies.

I think that the journal in which this study appeared was formerly known as Archives of Internal Medicine, a fairly selective and prestigious journal, even though this did not seem to be reflected in its Wikipedia article at the time of this writing ().

What Di Castelnuovo and colleagues found is interesting. They fitted a bunch of nonlinear functions to the data, all with J-curve shapes. The results suggest a lot of variation in the maximum amount one can drink before mortality becomes higher than not drinking at all; that maximum amount ranges from about 4 to 6 drinks per day.

But there is little variation in one respect. The optimal amount of alcohol is somewhere around 5 and 7 g/d, which translates into about the following every day: half a can of beer, half a glass of wine, or half a “shot” of spirit. This is clearly a common trait of all of the nonlinear functions that they generated. This is illustrated in the figure below, from the article.

As you can seen from the curves above, a little bit of alcohol every day seems to have an acute effect on mortality reduction. And it seems that taking little doses every day is much better than taking the equivalent dose over a larger period of time; for instance, the equivalent per week, taken once a week. This is suggested by other studies as well ().

The curves above do not clearly reflect a couple of problems with alcohol consumption. One is that alcohol seems to be treated by the body as a toxin, which causes some harm and some good at the same time, the good being often ascribed to hormesis (). Someone who is more sensitive to alcohol’s harmful effects, on the liver for example, may not benefit as much from its positive effects.

The curves are averages that pass through points, after which the points are forgotten; even though they are real people.

The other problem with alcohol is that most people who are introduced to it in highly urbanized areas (where most people live) tend to drink it because of its mood-altering effects. This leads to a major danger of addiction and abuse. And drinking a lot of alcohol is much worse than not drinking at all.

Interestingly, in traditional Mediterranean Cultures where wine is consumed regularly, people tend to generally frown upon drunkenness ().