How Much Alcohol Can You Get Away With?

How much alcohol can you get away with?

With Dry July in full swing, we investigate whether there is such a thing as a safe drinking level. Here's what you need to know

CANCER WARNINGS ARE coming to a bottle of alcohol near you – well, at least if you live in Ireland. It’s news I could hardly believe: Ireland, due to a requirement signed into law last year, will now require all bottles of alcohol to carry a cancer warning label starting in 2026.

A warning label on a booze seems extreme, and yet a growing chorus of alcohol researchers argue it’s long past due. “The alcohol research community has known for a long time that alcohol is not safe,” says John Callaci, Ph.D., a professor with the Alcohol Research Program at Loyola University Chicago. “You’re not doing your body, your health, any good by drinking.”

The World Health Organization, in a piece published in The Lancet Public Health in January 2023, concluded that any level of alcohol consumption will adversely affect one’s health. Not long after, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction declared that more than six drinks a week increases someone’s risk of high blood pressure, heart conditions, liver disease, and cancer.

So what are you supposed to do if you’re someone who likes to have a few? Cutting back entirely might be difficult, but some guys have figured it out. JW Sargent hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since New Year’s Eve 2022. For half a decade before that, he had always participated in Dry January, a month-long period of abstinence from beer, wine, and spirits – a glorified reset after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, the booziest holidays of the calendar year. But when he and his wife moved to Philadelphia in December of that year, he knew he needed a break. Beginning in January 2023, he was traveling two hours by train Tuesday through Thursday to his office in New York City, where he works for a big tech firm. To Sargent, having the energy to go to the gym on the weekends trumped going out for hours on a Friday or Saturday night.

“When my life got extra crazy, I needed more space for the things that are pushing me forward. Alcohol, sadly, didn’t most of the time,” says the 36-year-old, who has since swapped his beloved bourbon for club soda with lime.

For many people, though, alcohol is a fixture of life. The thought of not drinking—a neat Jack Daniel’s after, say, finishing an article for Men’s Health—scarcely crosses the mind. Yet decades of studies and research reveal a sobering truth that’s only now begun making its way to the general public: There’s no real safe amount of alcohol.

What alcohol does to your health

“THERE HAVE BEEN a few recent paradigm shifts in research,” says Aaron White, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol, at any dose, does not convey overall health benefits.”

We know now, for instance, that alcohol agitates the mucous membrane of the stomach, helping to release endotoxins that generate inflammation throughout the body. The link between alcohol and cancer is clearer: alcohol metabolism leads to the creation of acetaldehyde, a compound that damages DNA, interfering with its repair, which may cause cells to divide, multiply, and form into tumours. Indeed, behind cigarette smoking and obesity, alcohol consumption is the third leading modifiable risk for cancer. Even the Framingham Heart Study, the multigenerational study launched in 1948 in Framingham, Massachusetts, is suspect. While the data shows that people who drank moderately lived longer than those who didn’t, those same people also exercised more, ate more vegetables, and visited their doctors more regularly. In other words, they were overall healthier.

The data around resveratrol is a little more mixed. The polyphenolic compound found in red wine is regularly cited by the anti-aging crowd for its (purported) ability to bolster longevity-related genes. Red wine was also thought to be a factor in the French Paradox – the observation that there were relatively low rates of heart disease among French people despite the consumption of rich foods not associated with heart health. It’s not difficult to find other studies that laud red wine’s benefits, including mitigating oxidative stress or decreasing inflammation. Still, one study found that someone would need to drink at least 505 litres of red wine per day to consume one gram of resveratrol, the dose commonly used in clinical trials. And the effects of red wine, in general, might just be the social component: You’re drinking with friends, and there is other data out there showing that loneliness can be deadly.

Cutting back, at least based on the research, seems like a prudent decision. The official Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that “Drinking less is better for health than drinking more,” and defines drinking in moderation for men as limiting intake to two drinks or less a day. But, as Callaci says, no one really understands what one drink is.

“A glass of wine is five ounces of wine. And nobody drinks that. They’ll fill their wine glass up to probably 10 ounces,” he says. “So they think they’re drinking one drink, and they’re actually drinking two or more.”


What alcohol does to your social life

FOR ANYONE EVEN mildly contemplating a break from booze, however, sober curiosity comes with its own complications.

“When somebody is reconsidering their relationship to alcohol, it’s also reconsidering their social experience,” says Molly Anne Bowdring, clinical psychologist and research fellow with the Stanford Prevention Research Center. “Most times, those things go hand-in-hand.”

There was no sweeping declaration or sit-down conversation with friends and family once Sargent decided to stop drinking. “The thing I said the most,” he recalls, “was that it doesn’t fit into my life right now.”

Mark Malseed approached his drinking the same way. Before the pandemic, having a beer or glass of wine with dinner or a few drinks over the weekend when he went out with friends was typical. But during lockdown, the 48-year-old found himself working or working out at night, and the prospect of a beer beforehand lost its luster.

“I went from probably seven drinks a week down to two,” says Malseed, a consultant and author of The Google Story. He adds, “It just didn’t fit into my natural rhythm of life.”

To say nothing of the physical effects, which were too good to pass up. Once he cut back, Malseed says he slept better and felt better overall. Sargent says that once going out no longer meant having to have a drink, he felt less anxious. “It’s reframing what your weekends look like,” he says. “My friends don’t actually give a shit.”

So, is there a right way to drink right now? If you like to drink, the answer probably isn’t to stop entirely. Drinking less, of course, doesn’t mean no drinking at all. And I’m not pouring out the bottle of Jack on the bar cart. But maybe, once it’s empty, I don’t need another right away.

“It would be hard for me to forswear drinking entirely,” says Malseed. “But when I finished a bottle of Glenlivet in my cupboard, I didn’t buy another one.”

This article originally appeared on Men’s Health US.


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