We (in the United States) have a complex and convoluted relationship with alcohol. At the dawn of our nation, alcohol was seen as a far more sanitary alternative to water and a healthy digestive aid. In 1830, drinking-aged Americans consumed an average of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol a year, which is extraordinary considering that Americans today drink on average 2.5 gallons a year, according to the World Health Organization. The 1800s saw the debut of the cocktail and alcohol consumption peaked, making the 19th century the “Golden Age of Alcohol.” Like all wildly-unregulated things, this came to a crashing end with the law on Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 until 1933. Today, alcohol is neither the taboo it once was nor is it the elixir that the doctor prescribes. Rather, it is a regulated substance that we can’t quite seem to figure out how to relate to.
Our relationship with drugs and smoking are “no-no’s” here in the United States. If you are a millennial or older, you have witnessed in real time how society’s views have shifted. From the “Just Say No” campaign to the “D.A.R.E” (Drug Awareness Resistance Education) program in schools, Americans have developed little to no tolerance for drugs, their suppliers, or their victims. Smoking is similar; public spaces no longer allow ‘smoking sections,’ business owners have outlawed smoking in close proximity to their structures, and some outdoor spaces (like college campuses) have prohibited the act altogether. We’re reluctant, though, to take the same approach with alcohol.
Unlike with drugs or smoking, we have not blacklisted alcohol, despite its clear and present dangers like drinking and driving. For some reason, as a society, we have decided that alcohol is worth it. Teetotalers are quick to point out that 88,000 Americans die each year from alcohol-related causes, that alcohol is the third-leading cause of death (behind tobacco and poor diet/ physical inactivity), and that alcohol consumption (even for light drinkers!!) increases the likelihood of contracting several types of cancers including breast, esophageal, and liver cancers. Additionally, on a less-tragic note, alcohol can disrupt sleep cycles, which can make you feel exhausted even if you did get 7+ hours the night before. Alcohol aficionados, on the other hand, will point out that certain types of alcohol (like red wine) in moderation are not dangerous rather salubrious. All in all, our complicated relationship with alcohol lies in the substance’s ambivalent nature – it is neither all good nor all bad. For this reason, we have a hard time establishing our views on alcohol.
While research about the benefits of alcohol is inconclusive, there is consensus that binge drinking and excessive consumption is categorically bad. However, when it comes to moderate alcohol consumption, we tread in murkier waters. First of all—no one can agree on what it means to drink alcohol in moderation. A conservative approach advises the 1-2-3 rule (no more than 1 drink a day, no more than 2 at once, no more than 3 times a week) as the standard for moderation. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) only suggests that 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men is considered moderation. The CDC, however, does not have a guide for moderation over a longer period of time. Meaning, that the CDC does not (!!) suggest that 7 drinks a week for women and up to 14 a week for men is considered moderation. Regardless, research has shown that “moderate” consumption of certain types of alcohol (polyphenolic-rich beers and wines) can have a prophylactic effect on immune function, however, there are a number of variables at play that make this claim controversial. Yet, this shred of hope for alcohol’s benefits is enough fodder to keep alcohol in the category of a “sometimes drug”—sometimes we take a hard stance against it and sometimes we welcome it into our lives.
The reason that I am looking into alcohol now is for a topical reason. I am writing this post in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and was thinking about ways in which I could boost my immune system. When I was reading online about the topic, I was surprised by the way alcohol consumption was referenced in these texts. More than one article mentioned that one should reduce alcohol consumption or stick to moderation. Many articles suggested that if you do not drink, there is no reason to take it up. To me, this sounded funny, because as I now know from the research, alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic or excessive to have negative health consequences. Yet, when we consider our overall health, we still accept that we can be healthy (or even healthier) with alcohol despite the clear and present risks.
I drink alcohol in moderation and do not have strong feelings about the topic either way. However, I think that it is important that we recognize the obvious risks and potential benefits of alcohol, so we can all be informed about what exact effects it will have on our health. In the age of the coronavirus (and always!), it is important that we have access to unbiased information about our health.
So, if you choose to raise a glass, Dear Reader, at least be a well-informed and responsible drinker. Either way, I raise a figurative glass to you (contents left up to your imagination) and wish you good health.