Which Study on Effects of Alcohol Consumption Should You Believe-Take Your Pick?

The short answer to the question posed in the title is attributed to Ben Franklin-“Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see” (or read).

First, recognize that research (could apply to any research) concerning the effects of alcohol on one’s well-being, could be initiated and conducted with various degrees of bias. For example, I recently noticed conflicting research data from two seemingly benign sources concerning the benefits, or lack of, in alcohol consumption. Two somewhat contradictory articles were published on August 22nd and 24th, 2018. Both studies appeared in the Health section on the Newsmax website on August 24, 2018.

The lead article on the 24th had a headline: “No Safe Level of Alcohol”, the other appeared on the 22nd: “Moderate Drinking May Protect Your Health”. With just the information implied by the titles, what take-aways should the reader be left to contemplate?

What is the consumer to believe? For years I have been writing on conflicted studies relative to the benefits of drinking wine and alcohol in general. I find the disparity in studies can have a deleterious effect on making reasoned decisions from information in such studies. If you enjoy consuming some alcoholic beverages, you are no doubt interested in the long-term effects. But, based on never-ending studies covering both sides of the issue, it is hard to have much faith in any one study or even arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

Most benefits of wine consumption are centered around cardiovascular benefits. A French scientist studied wine and grape seeds/skins for decades. He was widely published relative to the anti-oxidant benefits from wine, and grape seeds in particular. His conclusions in the 80’s was that the benefits of wine, especially grape seed extracts, were remarkable relative to heart health, vascular system, and skin elasticity, to name a few. “In 1985, Jack Masquelier was able to further explain the intense and instant positive effects that OPCs (an anti-oxidant compound in grape seeds/skin and wine) have on the human body when he discovered that OPCs neutralize free radicals, the common cause of degenerative conditions and early onset of age-associated changes in the body.”

The point being; seeds and skin of grapes have high concentrations of OPC’s and while drinking wine has some anti-oxidant values (derived primarily from resveratrol) most are found in grape skin and seeds. In fact, there are some large wine producers (Gallo being one) also producing grape seed extract for the supplement industry. Also, resveratrol is being used in some topical anti-ageing skin products.

I you do an on-line search for benefits of wine and wine by-products; the search returns are too numerous to count. Sufficed to say, people have been reporting on both benefits and harmful effects of alcohol for decades. But, can you rely on any of this research? Some is anecdotal, filled with biases and predetermined targeted findings. It is like chasing rainbows if one tries to make healthful lifestyle changes based upon cogent and trusted information. We are told to drink lots of water, but not to much; now, how is that forgetting trusted information? Alcohol consumption has been a fact of life long before Christ.

If past studies were based on science, why do their initial conclusions change so quickly? In the 1970’s a Navy doctor told me to limit coffee intake to two cups per day and preferably none. He stipulated that research showed that drinking coffee hardened arteries and was harmful to kidneys. Today there are doctors that tout the anti-oxidant values of coffee and in fact promote coffee consumption. What changed?

Stated in the one study highlighting” the ill effects of alcohol”, the author states, “The protective effect of alcohol was (is) offset by the risks,” Griswold told AFP in summarizing the results, published in medical journal The Lancet on Friday–“No Safe Level of Alcohol”. If one reads just the headlines there are some issues that come to mind; mostly about with the way the study was conducted, and facts presented. Maybe the data was poorly aggregated. Simply, how can we have confidence in using the data to determine if life-style changes are appropriate, especially if data is faulty? Maybe we just feel the conflicting information in the public domain isn’t worth much consideration.

In addressing the much-reported benefits specific to wine, Griswold says, “despite recent research showing that light-to-moderate drinking reduces heart disease, the new study found that alcohol use is more likely than not to do harm.”

As with this study and most polls, there are a lot of caveats associated with the findings. For example:

  • Age disparities and sizes of each grouping will impact results on just how important alcohol consumption was to the findings. In one finding, researchers assumed alcohol played a part in deaths even when the deaths were not primarily or even tangentially related to alcohol.
  • There are geographical disparities. “Among men, drinking alcohol in 2016 was most widespread in Denmark (97 percent), along with Norway, Argentina, Germany, and Poland (94 percent),” notes Griswold.
  • “In Asia, South Korean men took the lead, with 91 percent hitting the bottle at least once in a while.”
  • Gender will impact findings. Among women alcohol consumer, Danes ranked first (95 percent), followed by Norway (91 percent), Germany and Argentina (90 percent), and New Zealand (89 percent).

The biggest drinkers identified geographically come from the Slavic countries-Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, etc. Here we are talking about men and women who consume more than 4 units per day of alcohol; that is significant.

The top six killers of people who also consume alcohol are: high blood pressure, smoking, low-birth weight and premature delivery, high blood sugar (diabetes), obesity and pollution. But aren’t those the same health culprits for people who do not consume alcoholic beverages? Griswold goes on to report, “a small beer, glass of wine or shot of spirits — per day, for example, ups the odds of developing at least one of two dozen health problems by about half-a-percent.” The logic here is difficult to follow to an unqualified conclusion!

In summary, the Griswold study attributes 2.8 million premature deaths worldwide each year to booze. But they do not define the caveats relative to what the “pre-mature” category is based upon. As I pointed out earlier, it is subjective when trying to account/factor-in for family health history, ethnicity, combination of drinks (wine, beer, spirits) seasonal issues, etc.

Just because we like the findings of a particular study on alcohol, does not mean it is a better study. That said, the next study titled: Moderate Drinking May Protect Your Health by Health Day and published by Newsmax on August 22, 2018. This study included 35,000 British and French citizens over 10 years. But, where the French are involved in a study there ought to be consideration to diets. Remember another study from years ago brought into our lexicon the term “French Paradox”? At the time, that study turned all previous studies on their collective heads. Even then some researchers found fault with the study. (The French are noted for high fat in their diets, yet French had what most researchers considered to be healthy cardiovascular systems.)

In either study I am address in this article, there are always variables. The following are a few variables that can make alcohol consumption studies, conducted many decades ago, irreverent:

  • People turning to better exercise habits in some parts of the world and not so in others.
  • Diets of less gluten, less sugar, more fiber, etc. Again, this can impact study participants geographically.
  • Communal eating.
  • Improved support systems for older adults due to retirement incomes, families, etc.
  • Reduced stress; some of which can be attributed to retirement.
  • Higher education levels.
  • Better monitoring and understanding of family health history and adjusting to these factors in life-style changes.
  • Even the internet makes information more available.
  • Changes in consumer tastes. There has been a shift to craft beers and spirits over the past 7 years.

The study titled (“Moderate Drinking May Protect Your Heart”) introduced another often-noted element to the benefits of alcohol. Relative to the heart, it was found that consistent and moderate consumption of alcohol was critical. Health Day reported, “Those who consistently drank moderate amounts of alcohol had a lower risk of heart disease than those who drinking levels that ebbed and flowed over time.” (This statement is not consistent with the first study.) Consistent and moderate drinking was the critical element to receiving the benefits of alcohol consumption.

General findings of this Health Day study are summarized:

  • Consistent drinking seems to diminish heart disease.
  • Retirement seems to be a factor in increase alcohol consumption above the moderate category.
  • In the long-term, “non-drinkers” heart risks were most noted amongst women.
  • Consistent heavy drinkers had exhibited less cardiovascular events such as a heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Eugenia Gianos, who directs women’s heart health at Lennox Hill Hospital in NY says, “the jury is still out on the effect of even moderate drinking on a person’s overall health.” (Tell that to Griswold.) However, Dr. Cathy Grines who directs department of cardiology at North Shore University Hospital in NY says, “the protective effects of alcohol went away if one did not drink the same amounts regularly.” “Many of us believe that we are detoxing and helping ourselves by having periods of abstinence, but that (maybe) is a false assumption.”

We now have diametrical opposing studies; must one be right and the other wrong? There seems to be even opposing views from within the medical community. These are from primary care professionals who read the same studies as we read and are passing along lifestyle change recommendations to patients based on selected studies; maybe faulty studies. In talking to cardiologist, I have found some say there are multiple benefit to spirits and wine. Conversely, some doctors think alcohol elevates the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL).

A large part of these studies seems to be based on empirical data. However, this poses a problem: “If there are flaws in the way that empirical data is collected, the research will not be considered valid,” say Ana Bradford in Life Science, July 27, 2017. By reading these two studies I have mentioned, as laymen, we really are not equipped to understand any level of validity in either study.

I found it interesting that on virtually the same day, two reports concerning effects of alcohol on health were published; one purporting that alcohol is totally bad and the other talks about the benefits of alcohol for the heart. Bottom-line, everyone should consumer research but always remember, all research has flaws and as Dr. Grines states, there are “flukes” in data. I believe there is more research on wine and wine related products than research that definitively say’s “moderate wine or alcohol reduces natural life expectancy”! I hope it doesn’t boil down to “Pick Your Poison”.

We probably should not trust poll-based research as a tool to make life-style changes without understanding the protocols used. The more variables there are in the control groups the more we should be prone to be skepticism.

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