by | May 24, 2020 | 18 comments

This is an old topic that keeps coming up, and it is something that a lot of people struggle to get away from; the idea that drinking moderately is healthy, and in particular that red wine has certain health benefits. I thought it would be useful to do a post just clarifying the position. Let’s look at red wine as a particular example.

Red wine is made up primarily of two things; grape juice and alcohol. Let’s look at both of these things separately.

Alcohol is a poisonous chemical. It kills living things (which is why it is used in hand sanitiser). It also kills humans, in large enough doses it kills them immediately, it smaller doses it kills them slowly. Alcoholic beverages are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 1 carcinogen along with mustard gas, plutonium and tobacco. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, oesophageal (food pipe) cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer (pretty much everything it comes into contact with in other words). It also destroys the liver, but in fact the main health risk of drinking is cardiovascular. You know when you have even one drink your heart rate increases? That’s weakening your heart. If you increase your heart rate chemically (instead of through exercise) you increase your risk of cardiovascular disease (for an explanation of the mechanics of this see the article on this website on ‘Alcohol and Fitness’).

Alcohol has no health benefits at all. Quite the opposite in fact. And I challenge any human being or organisation on the planet to say otherwise.

So much for alcohol, let’s look at the other part of red wine, the grape juice.

Fruit and fruit juice is, as opposed to alcohol, generally good for us. Fruits are a natural part of the human diet and contain vitamins and minerals in abundance that keep us feeling well and healthy. So of course red wine, being primarily made up of grape juice, contains many things that are good for us. So it is easy to say that this, that or the other in red wine is good for us. But that is the grape side and not the alcohol side of it.

Drinking red wine and saying it’s good for you is the equivalent of breakfasting on an apple and 10 Marlboro, and then justifying it by saying that there is vitamin C in the apple.

But what about all those studies that show that people who drink one glass of wine a day or a week or whatever live longer than those who don’t drink at all? The explanation is clear when you look in detail at these moderate drinkers and the abstainers in all these studies. The moderate drinkers tend to be wealthier, more educated, smoke less, live in nicer areas, are less likely to have been in prison, less likely to be overweight, and in general are better off than both people who drink a lot and those who say that they never drink. The abstainers however are a very different cohort. Drinking is currently considered normal in our society and the vast majority of people do it (some 80%), and historically people who abstain do so because of illness, poverty, imprisonment and previous alcoholism. It is these factors, and not their abstaining from a carcinogenic chemical, that is shortening their lives.

Alcohol is the last great bastion of acceptable drug addiction. It used to stand shoulder to shoulder with smoking, but smoking is slowly being pushed out to the periphery. Years ago you used to be able to go into a chemist and buy heroin, cocaine, and in fact pretty much anything you wanted.

Ever heard of a product called Norodin? It was described as being “useful in dispelling the shadows of mild mental depression” and it was also claimed that it has “relatively few side effects.” It was methamphetamine.

Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative claimed it provided relief for teething pain, bowel problems, flatulence and convulsions. It contained laudanum.

In 1849, Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow launched her Soothing Syrup in Maine which contained 65mg of morphine per fluid ounce. The syrup was advertised as providing relief for children who were teething and one mother wrote to The New York Times claiming its effect on her son was “like magic; he soon went to sleep, and all pain and nervousness disappeared.” Surprise surprise.

The point is drugs may cause a very short term apparent benefit by changing how we feel, and historically this has fooled us into thinking that they are good for us (which make us all too ready to believe any claim that they have health benefits), but quite the opposite is in fact the case. Where society is now with alcohol is exactly where our Victorian predecessors were with Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative. Things are slowly improving and they will continue to improve because the truth is out there staring us in the face and is becoming increasingly hard to deny, but these changes take time (particularly when the majority of the population drink and therefore have a vested interest in perpetuating the myths that they use to justify their continued intake).

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18 Comments

  1. Frannie

    Thank you. I always wanted to know why I had a racing heart after drinking! Also I appreciate the history in your post x

    Reply
  2. Oonagh Partridge

    William when I was in my 20s I remember wanting someone to explain the truth about alcohol and the reason why something that made me feel so ill and damaged was the normal thing to do in life.
    I gave up many times over the years but kept going back to it to keep in others and also to cure anxiety etc .
    I read your book at the age of 61! Haven’t wanted to drink since.
    You are so knowledgeable and have a great way of getting this across to us .
    Once again Thankyou for giving me my life back

    Reply
  3. MICHAEL Paul BROWN

    As with your book, William, incredibly clear

    Reply
  4. Smith

    This was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. ron marshall

    Spot on William ,that old chestnut “Red wine is good for you ” Bollox .is spread about by drinkers and big alcohol im sure these people are crazy ,well apart from big alcohol whose main purpose in life is to get every person on the planet addicted to there poison ,by the way has anyone ever smelt 95% rubbing alcohol the smell alone is enough to kill you ,i use it for softening wood for carving or used to ni now just carve softer wood ,

    Reply
  6. Jen Rohde

    I agree with all of this but what is your response to the Blue Zones book and study which clearly has alcohol as linked those populations longevity? Those are not wealthy communities. They do obviously have many other factors that contribute to their health and well-being but the book clearly mentions small amounts of alcohol as a factor. I would appreciate your take on this! Thank you,

    Reply
    • ron marshall

      I dont see the point of defending drinking alcohol by rich/poor people what are you trying to say that alcohol is good for you but only for rich people ,sorry dont see your point at all really it just looks like your saying give me a reason to drink it ?

      Reply
      • Jen Rohde

        If this comment is directed at me, you have sorely mistaken my point. I am asking the author to offer his opinion on why those well documented communities seem to thrive while drinking alcohol. I’m curious not defending anything or trying to stir the pot. Perhaps you should take a deep breath before you project your thoughts onto someone else.

        Reply
    • William Porter

      Buettner I think identified nine factors he considered responsible for the longevity:

      Moderate, regular physical activity
      Life purpose
      Stress reduction
      Moderate caloric intake
      Plant-based diet
      Moderate alcohol intake
      Engagement in spirituality or religion
      Engagement in family life
      Engagement in social life

      What we don’t have is any evidence that people in those communities who don’t drink, tend to die earlier, which to my mind suggests it is the other factors, rather than the consumption of alcohol, that is contributing to their increased longevity.

      Reply
      • Jen Rohde

        Thank you so much for replying as I highly value your opinion. I find the messages in the Blue Zones book highly conflicting as they cite the classic “studies show a daily drink may accrue health benefits… ” p. 279-280 but then make it clear of the harm that occurs when daily consumption “exceeds a glass or two.” p. 281. My take-away was that the glass of wine/sake (Sardinia or Okinawa) that was “with each meal and whenever friends meet” was probably small compared to many Western civilizations idea of a serving and that, like you said, since it was done in combination with many other overwhelming positive health factors, the downside was outweighed. Your article makes great sense to me. I think there is a lot of room for misinterpretation/more harm than goo when that book calls for, in Lesson 4 Strategies” to “introduce a glass of wine into a daily routine.” p. 281. I’m grateful for your article which clarifies the harm more succinctly.

        Reply
  7. Chris Treloar

    Great article William. I do hope your book Alcohol explained is selling well. The title itself is a subtle lead in which is great for when I speak to someone I care about as a good book to read without sounding like I am banging on the righteous drum and the dangers of drinking. With the right data and a desire
    they can then make an informed decision.
    Good luck and thank you for the post!

    Reply
  8. Dd

    Great information delivered in an easy to read and understand way. Reminds us of the con that alcohol is.
    Thank you

    Reply
  9. Mary

    I can fully relate to your comment about the racing heart and the potential cardiovascular disease with alcohol. That was definitely my experience with several years of drinking. After a night of drinking, I would get up from the couch and drag myself to bed and my heart would be pounding full on. I also found this to happen if I were hung over the next day and had to walk up a slightly elevated path, and especially when I had to climb steps. I always knew it had something to do with the alcohol. And this went of for years. Now, and also with a massive weight reduction, the heart palpitations have stopped. But they reduced remarkably after I gave up alcohol more than 16 months ago now. Recently, during a significant drop in my weight while on a program, the palpitations returned. I had a heart minitor, 24 hr holter test done and something mild was detected. I’m yet to see a specialist for further testing and will wait until more covid 19 restrictions are lifted, but I know that it is okay, and I think when I was young, i was tested for benign irregular heart beats. Who knows if alcohol has aggravated a pre-exisiting condition, but I do know that there was a direct correlation with my drinking. Fingers crossed I stopped before any long term damage. William, I really appreciate the clarity and coherence that you bring to the discussion around alcohol and how you turn mainstream rhetoric on its head. And it’s funny how we come to just blindly accept the big claims that are made. Your analogy of having an apple while smoking 10 Marlboro Cigarettes is priceless. I know that if I were still drinking alcohol, I would be on a serious fast track to permanent illness. And I wasn’t drinking heavily by comparison, just regular drinking of red wine that from my experience I believe was deceptively lethal. I drank red wine so that i could avoid drinking a bottle of white wine per night. So I worked real hard in the final years of drinking to stop at half a bottle of red. However, the persistent drinking got me in the end anyway. Not having the palpitations anymore is great.

    Reply
  10. Ines

    As usual you posted powerful information. Indeed due to many interests the message that red wine is good for you remains on track. Messages like your are priceless. You can’t get around it. Drinking wine is bad for you (not to talk about all additives that you get into your body while drinking it).
    Thank you very much. Your posts are really welcome, they keep me staying on track from not drinking. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Maggie Maher

    Hi William,

    You explain how even one drink will trigger your brain to expect 10 more (if you used to drinking 10). Will even a “non-alcoholic” beer containing “less than 0.5% alcohol” have this same effect?

    Thanks,
    Maggie

    Reply
    • William Porter

      That is a very good question and something I have been meaning to do a blog post about for some time, your comment has prompted me to get on with it!

      Reply
    • Lisa

      I want to know too!

      Reply
  12. Susan Haddleton

    Excellent article as always William.
    This subject is very close to my heart. My mother was a lifetime alcoholic, we used to gently try and suggest she drank too much when things got completely out of hand.
    Whatever she had drunk, she always quoted a doctor who foolishly once told her red wine in moderation was good for her. The get out of jail card he handed her was responsible for so much trouble for many years until she died.
    I wish he had your sense! I knew he was totally wrong, but couldn’t at the time analyse and articulate it like you have here.
    Thanks for posting.

    Reply

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