Distributed by Featurewell.com
My grandmother Alice loved the occasional scotch on the rocks, while my grandfather Walter swore by his nightly brandy. Alice survived well into her 80s and Walter lived to be 98.
Like my grandparents, many of today's men and women enjoy imbibing the finer spirits — scotch, vodka, gin, tequila. In fact, spirit sales are rebounding since the end of the recession, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and there are many trendy flavored vodkas and other liquors that make drinking more palatable than ever. Of course, people also are enjoying fine wines and hearty beers and ales.
Alcohol is an integral part of our social and professional cultures. Drinking is equated with a good time and alcohol can have salutary effects on your health, but it carries some health risks, especially if you're prone to overindulging.
The 2010 U.S. dietary guidelines define moderate — in other words, healthy — drinking as up to one drink a day for women and two drinks for men. More than 50 randomized studies show that when consumed in moderation, alcohol increases levels of HDL, or good, cholesterol in the blood and decreases blood clotting and insulin resistance, all of which reduce the risk of heart disease. Other studies suggest moderate alcohol consumption can lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis.
As most of us are aware, too much alcohol can contribute to a risk of all of these diseases, cause weight gain (since liquor contains no small amount of calories; see chart below) and create alcohol dependence. It also can exaggerate feelings of depression, guilt, self-loathing, anxiety and anger, and interfere with sleep. Too much alcohol can impair your judgment resulting in you placing yourself in dangerous situations (such as driving after imbibing), or it may affect your work or school performance or personal relationships.
For men and women middle-aged and older, one to two drinks a day are associated with the lowest risk of premature death. In comparison, drinking among younger adults appears to have little if any health benefit and is associated with a higher risk of injury and death. It's also true, however, that with age, some people become more sensitive to alcohol's effects, and the more medications you use, the more likely you are to suffer a potentially dangerous drug-alcohol interaction.
Women can't consume as much liquor as men because of their body size and composition. There's more water in a man's body to dilute liquor, so it has less of an inebriating effect. Also, research indicates that women don't metabolize alcohol in the stomach as quickly as men. "The first enzyme to break down alcohol (called alcohol dehydrogenase) isn't as active in women, but we don't know why," says Sharon Wilsnack, a researcher at the University of North Dakota.
• Gin, rum, vodka, whiskey (1 fluid ounce): 64 calories
• Brandy (1 shot): 56 calories
• Wine (1 glass, 3.5 fluid ounces): 84 calories
• Beer (1 can or bottle, 12 fluid ounces): 153 calories
• Light beer (1 can or bottle, 12 fluid ounces):103 calories
• Champagne (1 glass): 91 calories
Tips for drinking wisely
• Consume high-end, purer alcohols to prevent hangovers. Lighter-colored alcohols have fewer impurities, or congeners, than darker-colored varieties, and it's the congeners that can cause hangovers. Vodka, gin, light beer and white wine are purer than tequila, dark beer and red wine.
• To prevent dehydration, a byproduct of drinking and a source of hangover symptoms, alternate a glass of water, juice or a sports drink for every glass of alcohol you drink.
• Don't combine alcohol with medications. Anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants can increase the effects of alcohol, making you more intoxicated.
• Don't drink on an empty stomach because alcohol will be absorbed into your bloodstream faster. Any type of food will suffice except for salty snacks; they make you thirsty, and more apt to reach for another drink.
• Designate a nondrinking driver. Yes, you're an adult (not a teenager) who can handle his or her liquor, but you still can get wobbly on just a couple of drinks. Don't take chances with your life or someone else's. Remember, too, that it takes less alcohol for a woman to reach the legal limit for driving than for a man: Just two standard drinks over an hour will do it.
The "hair of the dog that bit you" (having a morning drink such as a Bloody Mary) is a popular remedy for the headache, nausea, dry mouth and dizziness that signal a hangover, but there's no real proof it works. In fact, there is little scientific evidence that any remedies really work, yet hangover cures abound and some might even be worth a try. For instance, one popular product called Chaser contains vegetable carbon, which binds the congeners, and calcium carbonate, which settles the stomach. Another product, the Tex-OE skin patch, contains a prickly pear extract and was shown in a clinical study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine to reduce hangover symptoms by half.
Other solutions include drinking a tall glass of water before bedtime and another when you wake up to counter alcohol-induced dehydration. Drink a glass of fruit juice or eat honey on crackers, as fructose (sugar) helps the body burn alcohol so it clears your system faster.
Nancy Monson is the author of Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes (Wheatmark).