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People have used alcohol in one form or another since prehistoric times. While alcohol is primarily drunk for its mood-altering effects, the results of recent studies suggest that there are benefits to moderate drinking. (Moderate drinking is defined as one or two drinks containing either 11/2 oz/45 ml of alcohol, 5 oz/150 ml of wine, or 12 oz/355 ml of beer, each).

What is alcohol ?

Ethyl alcohol (ethanol), the main active ingredient of alcoholic beverages, is made by yeast fermentation of starch or sugar. Almost any sweet or starchy food potatoes, grains, honey, grapes and other fruits, even dandelions can be turned into alcohol.

Unlike most foods, alcohol is not digested; 95 percent of it is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and small intestine within an hour. (The other 5 percent is eliminated through the kidneys, lungs, or skin.) The liver breaks down, or metabolizes, alcohol; the time this takes depends upon whether the alcohol is ingested with food and upon the person's sex, weight, body type, and tolerance level, which increases with time and use. On average, however, it takes the liver 3 to 5 hours to completely metabolize 1 oz (30 ml) of alcohol.

Latest Medical Research on Alcohol

Recent medical studies have found that drinking small amounts of alcohol, especially red wine, lowers the risk of a heart attack. This is good news for anyone who enjoys a little Chianti with their chicken. But the news also raises other questions: Does alcohol provide other protective health benefits ? And can protection come with red wine only ?

Another study revealed that having two alcoholic drinks a day offers more than double the protection from cardiovascular disease than one drink provides. In the long term, having one drink a day lowers your risk by 5 percent, but having two cuts it by 10 to 13 percent.

The risk of a heart attack lowers because alcohol reduces the detrimental effects of elevated blood cholesterol while also preventing clot formation. In this study levels of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) lowered, as did triglyceride levels: High levels of either raise the risk of heart disease. Other studies show that moderate drinking may increase the levels of protective (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) cholesterol.

The results are especially significant for women over 50 since a woman's risk of heart disease rises sharply after menopause.

The mechanisms by which alcohol protects are still unclear, but some researchers note that because red wines in particular contain certain polyphenols, which can act as antioxidants resveratrol being the prime example they can be expected to protect cells from damage that normally occurs when the body uses oxygen. It's believed that oxidation of LDLs is what causes blood vessels to clog. The polyphenols may also fortify LDL cholesterol against oxidation.

It is not just red wine that's protective. The results of several studies have linked the moderate consumption of alcohol with 32 percent lower risk of heart attack, and a decease in stroke of 20 to 28 percent. Results from other studies also suggest that people who drink light to moderate amounts of alcohol daily significantly lower their risk of diabetes.

Alcohol Protects the Brain

A 2002 study reports that people who imbibe moderately daily were 70 percent less likely than nondrinkers to develop dementia, an age-related decline in mental ability; they were also more than 30 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Alcohol appears to offer a number of brain-related benefits. It thins the blood and helps prevent clots from jamming tiny blood vessels in the brain; and it appears to stimulate the release of acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in learning and memory.

Consume no more than two drinks daily. Alcohol's protective effects are indeed impressive, but studies also show that over-consumption may significantly raise the risk of developing a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias, liver disease, stroke, dementia, and several kinds of cancer, including cancer of the liver, pancreas, esophagus, and mouth. Also, alcohol is addictive. Overindulgence quickly erases any benefits. Even a weekend of heavy drinking causes a buildup of fatty cells in the liver. While this organ has remarkable recuperative powers, continued use of alcohol can lead to permanent liver damage and problems with glucose metabolism, and eventually scarring, or cirrhosis.

Alcohol also interferes with the body's metabolism of various vitamins and minerals. Women at risk for breast cancer should moderate their consumption. It has bee shown that those who consume alcohol daily have a higher risk of breast cancer than those who do not. the risk increases with amount of alcohol consumed.

Alcohol's heart benefits stop after that second drink. A third does more harm than good, actually raising triglyceride levels without reducing LDL cholesterol. the key, as with everything else in life, is moderation.


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