no safe level of drinking. No health benefits to alcohol Busting the healthy alcohol myth

PREVIOUSLY it had been thought that moderate alcohol consumption reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease – so reducing your chance of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke.

However mounting evidence suggests that this may not be the case, and that there may be no safe level of drinking.

A study last year showed that even one unit of alcohol per day increased the risk of certain cancers, notably breast cancer.

Now research following half a million Chinese individuals over ten years shows that drinking 1-2 drinks a day increases blood pressure and risk of stroke by up to 15 per cent and that heavy drinking, such as four drinks a day, can raise your chances by up to 35 per cent.

East Asians are in a unique position. Up to a third do not possess the enzyme that breaks down alcohol. Hence even small amounts can produce extremely unpleasant effects including facial flushing and nausea within minutes of consuming even a small amount of alcohol. This is a genetic condition. The researchers found that those who had this genetic variant had reduced levels of blood pressure and risk of stroke.

Although all research into alcohol consumption is observational and relies on the individual accurately recording how much they drink, the majority of Europeans have the gene which metabolises alcohol, so there is no robust predictor of their drinking patterns. Some people will deliberately underestimate their alcohol consumption, while others simply are not aware of what constitutes a unit.

There are limitations to this study in that the majority of drinks recorded were beer and spirits, rather than wine.

Red wine in moderation together with a Mediterranean diet and regular physical activity has often been viewed as the way to a long and healthy life. The research could not say what the effect of alcohol was on heart disease, with the authors admitting that more data was needed.

However, the tide is definitely turning, and this is reflected in the behaviour of society. More young people than ever are actively choosing to be teetotal and the sales of low or non-alcohol beverages are increasing dramatically. Even the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is recommending a non-alcohol alternative in its top choices. National initiatives including “Dry January” and “Sober for October” are gaining popularity, with many participants’ consumption dropping after the month is over. Against this, there are always pub chains and retailers offering special offers on multiple purchases.

The Government’s current recommendation is no more than 14 units per week, with several alcohol-free days. An alcohol diary can be a practical way of keeping track. Most beverages have the number of units listed on the side of their container to help.

The bottom line will always remain simple. This is not about making alcohol into the “demon drink” but allowing those who do consume it to be aware of the risks.

What this research adds to is the evidence that for those who do not drink, there is no real health benefit to starting.

Question: I’ve had an odd burning sensation in my breasts for the last few weeks. I regularly self-examine and can’t feel any lumps. I’m a new mum but stopped breast feeding at two weeks. – Lexy, 25

Answer: If you can’t feel any lumps or bumps, and you’ve not noticed any skin or nipple changes, it is less likely to be anything worrisome. As you aren’t breast feeding, mastitis or infection of the breasts is unlikely to be the cause. Nonetheless it would be worth consulting your routine GP, who may offer to examine you. What you are describing sounds like cyclical mastalgia or breast pain due to hormones. You could try oil of evening primrose, which can be bought over the counter. However if the pain does not go away or becomes worse, you should not ignore this, even if you are unable to feel a lump yourself.

Question: What do you think about patients “googling” their symptoms before a consultation. The younger generation, myself included, are quite internet savvy. It’s often difficult to resist looking things up – Rebecca; 21

Answer: It is always a pleasure to consult with a well-informed patient, who can explain their symptoms confidently and is willing to share their concerns with the doctor. There are many reliable and helpful sources on the internet which can be used in addition to, but never in place of a consultation with your doctor. At the same time, there is a lot of unverified information on the internet which can either give false reassurance or worse cause unnecessary concern. If in doubt, talk to your doctor.

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Dr Uddin’s advice is provided in good faith and in accordance with currently accepted evidence. However, this content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should always seek the advice of a GP, or other qualified health provider, regarding a medical condition.