by Robrt L. Pela
Among my fondest memories of my youth is the short year between high school and college when, for the first time since I was 5 years old, I did not have classes to attend. My plan, much to my parents’ chagrin, was to spend the year traveling cross-country; instead, I spent most of it in the front seat of my 1976 Oldsmobile, drinking wide-mouthed bottles of Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor and talking about life with my best friend Brian.
Thirty years later, I’ve lost touch with Brian, and beer gives me a headache. At some point, I added wine and hard liquor to a short list of things that I almost never go near, figuring that more than an occasional glass of merlot would prevent me from living the long, healthy life I have planned. Apparently, I am mistaken.
According to some surprising new information, if I want to make it to 70 years, I should be drinking more. And while moderation is still a primary principle in the art of imbibing, some experts claim that total alcoholic abstinence isn’t necessarily a good thing. Others who have studied the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption say that observing the cocktail hour can lower the risk of certain health problems and can actually lead to a longer life.
“We’ve learned that people who use modest amounts of alcohol are less likely to experience problems like arterial sclerosis, heart attacks or strokes,” wrote the late Dr. John Bland, a professor of rheumatology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine whose book Live Long, Die Fast became a bible of sorts for long-life fanatics. “We don’t have a lot of statistics yet, but we do know that there are certain cleansing and neurophysiological benefits to alcohol.”
Who needs statistics when the news is this good? And while it’s a safe bet that throwing back a couple of after-dinner stingers shouldn’t replace our standard workout routine, it’s nice to know that the evils of drink aren’t considered so very evil any more. Consider these points:
• Resveratrol, a chemical found in grape skins, is known to fight cancer at three different stages. It also reduces swelling and inflammation and may help reduce heart disease without the side effects of aspirin.
• A pair of studies reported in the Physicians’ Health Study found that imbibing up to a dozen drinks per week lowers the risk of peripheral arterial disease, and up to six drinks per week is associated with a lower risk of overall death in healthy men.
• Research from the Howard University College of Medicine finds that antioxidants known as phenols are present in beer, liquor and wine. Phenols may help stave off age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in men and women over 65.
Perhaps the most significant news from the booze-as-elixir front is that one or two drinks a day actually helps detoxify our bodies, because alcohol stimulates the liver. But, while all of this sounds too good to be true, experts who are imparting this still-new information about the benefits of a slow gin fizz are quick to point out – particularly in April, which is National Alcohol Awareness Month – the real dangers of alcohol abuse.
“Although the liver has an enormous regenerative capacity, it can be damaged by excessive amounts of alcohol,” says Michael Fossel, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of clinical medicine at Michigan State University. “Those who abuse alcohol are more likely to have compromised immune systems and to succumb to small infections that those of us who stop after one drink can easily fend off.”
Knowing when to cut yourself off is key. “You have to think logically regarding this kind of information,” Fossel cautions. “You can’t take it to extremes and say that because a glass of wine is found to have certain benefits, you should drink a bottle of it every day. That’s the same as saying that wearing a bra will make you live longer, because women wear bras and women tend to outlive men.”
Fossel has more than cunning lingerie metaphors to share with us. “There’s this unfortunate belief that we can somehow compensate for over-indulging in alcohol by an exercise regime or by eating some kind of supplement. This works if you go off on a bender every once in awhile. If you’re in shape to begin with and have a basic reserve of vitamins and minerals in your system, your body will eventually flush out all the nasty by-products of an alcohol binge.” But Fossel points out that ultimately, nothing can negate the ill effects of alcohol in excess. “It’s a damaging compound in the long run, and if you overdo it, the injurious effects far outdo the favorable effects,” he says.
Those of us who can’t say no to a fourth martini may end up chasing our cocktails with wrinkle cream, according to Dr. Ronald Klatz, the president of the Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, who reports that imbibing has a profound aging effect on skin. On the other hand, Klatz points out that “alcohol is a vaso-dilator that increases the caliber of small blood vessels. If you have increased delivery of blood to the skin, it’s safe to say that skin cells are better maintained and more healthy. Again, the key is moderate alcohol consumption.”
Tell that to the French. “The United States is 16th in life expectancy,” Klatz says. “People in France eat a pound of butter every day, and have nowhere near the sophistication of health care we have here.” But the French live longer, Klatz believes, because they eat more healthy foods and live a healthier, more relaxed lifestyle – one that’s fueled by the calming effect of tossing back a few jiggers of good red wine.
“Dinner for Americans is like a drive-through,” Klatz says. “Whereas, for Europeans, it’s a more leisurely meal of natural foods that haven’t been overly processed, and that are often accompanied by a glass of red wine.” A cocktail before dinner or a little red wine with a meal creates a more relaxed pace to life that’s beneficial all around, Klatz says. “When we drink, we relax. Stress is a major killer. Drinking slows down time, acts as a tranquilizer and pulls our focus away from the time-driven pressures we tend to create for ourselves.”
Alcohol’s calming effect, in addition to its neurophysiological and antioxidant benefits, is what separates a good glass of wine from, say, a gobletful of grape juice that may contain the same chemicals. Fans of a hearty Beaujolais will be glad to hear that red wine is better for you than white wine, beer or liquor, because red wine contains higher levels of phenols. Fortified wine, which has a higher alcohol content, is not necessarily better for you, as it contains the same level of phenols as does your favorite merlot. Bland recommended as much as six ounces of red wine (about a glass) per day.
“It’s been argued that the distillation of beer made cavemen civilized,” he wrote. “What they didn’t know is that it also increased their health and their life span.”
It may be awhile before contemporary man embraces this knowledge. Before experts can successfully share new findings about the benefits of alcohol consumption, Fossel says, we must first overcome old, puritanical attitudes that told us that drinking is bad. “That sort of thinking is justified where alcohol abuse is concerned,” he admits. “But we’ve come to learn that there are certain advantages to enjoying booze, and we have to let down our old judgments about how drinking is just plain bad for us. It isn’t.”
Curious about what the healthiest adult beverages might be, we’ve found the consensus lists them in this general order. Sorry, tequila didn’t make the top ten (but it does aid digestion).
1. Red wine is chock-full of resveratrol, an antioxidant in the skin of grapes. It protects blood vessels in the heart, discourages blood clotting and reduces bad cholesterol. Recently, studies have even shown a decrease in lung cancer risk and protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Heck, a glass of red even prevents tooth decay – proanthocyanidins in the seeds and skins of wine grapes block the destructive virus streptococcus mutans from sticking to tooth enamel.
2. White wine. It’s no merlot, but a chardonnay or pinot grigio can still be good for you. No grape skins means less reservatrol, and more tooth decay. But grape pulp still contains other types of helpful polyphenols that protect your heart just as well as red wine. So rejoice with a glass of reisling or fumé blanc. (Did we mention the 2010 Tromsø Study in northern Norway has reported that a glass or two of wine a day, red or white, may improve cognitive function in women?)
3. Gin. The juniper berries used to flavor gin are diuretics and have been shown to lower blood-glucose levels. Numerous spices, from coriander to sage, are also used in the flavoring of gin. These impart other benefits such as an anti-inflammatory effect that may help with arthritis.
4. Whiskey. A shot of Jack has the same recommended dose of vitamin C as a glass of orange juice, according to Australia’s Monash University. While maturing in oak barrels, ellagic acid leaches from the wood into the stored beverage. This acid, also found in fruit, is said to help fight cancer, much like red wine. And there’s more in a single malt scotch.
5. Brandy. Just like whiskey, a shot of brandy can provide the daily vitamin C requirement. But much of the benefit comes from distillation in copper equipment rather than the oak-barrel aging. In grape-based brandy, some of the antioxidants in red wine also survive the distillation process to benefit our hearts. Brandy made from quality young red wine, distilled with a copper coil and aged well in oak will contain more antioxidants than other brandies. So do a little research!
6. Guinness. University of Wisconsin researchers found that the flavonoids in a pint of Guinness Extra Stout were about as effective as aspirin in preventing blood platelets from clotting. It was tested on beer-drinking dogs with narrowing arteries. The results are ironic, considering Guinness was reprimanded back in the 1940s for an advertising campaign with the slogan,“Guinness is good for you.”
7. Other beer. A couple beers a day seem to fend off the aging process. Blood vessels are less prone to clots or ruptures. Type 2 diabetes is held at bay. A beer a day or less, for those over 65, may prevent dementia. Beer also puts silicon in our diet, contributing to bone growth and development. Hoppier beers also contain xanthohumol, a micronutrient that inhibits tumor growth and enzymes that activate cancer cells. Salud!