Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D.’s “What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain, and Health” episode on his podcast Huberman Lab has garnered over 4 million views. For good reason: We’re all just looking for validation that our post-work Friday cocktail (and, let’s be honest, nightly glass or two of wine) habit is justified. Or at least not terrible for us. Thanks to a new study, you now have one more scientific reason to take the edge off.
Researchers found that light to moderate consumption of alcohol (one to 14 drinks per week) was associated with reductions in stress signaling in the brain (1). While the study authors don’t promote alcohol consumption, the reduction of said stress was associated with a significantly lower risk for major adverse cardiovascular events—like stroke—according to the study, which was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The idea that a little booze might be good for you isn’t new. A handful of studies may even back it up (2, 3). But before you pop some bubbly in celebration, you should know that the vast majority of evidence actually says the opposite: Drinking is no bueno for longevity, even at moderate levels.
Alcohol and Longevity
While some studies have linked the occasional happy hour to health benefits, no doctor worth their two cents would recommend picking up a drinking habit. In fact, most longevity experts fall into the ‘any amount of booze isn’t exactly good for you’ camp.
“Even low to moderate alcohol consumption negatively impacts the brain and body,” Huberman said on Huberman Lab. Longevity doctor Peter Attia, M.D. tends to agree. “Alcohol serves no nutritional or health purpose but is a purely hedonistic pleasure that needs to be managed,” he wrote in his book Outlive.
Even longevity researcher, David Sinclair, Ph.D.—whose life’s work on longevity has often focused on the inflammation-fighting polyphenol compounds, like resveratrol in red wine—admits that too much alcohol is bad for your health, opting to get his resveratrol from supplements rather than wine.
Talk about a buzz kill.
That said, it’s not a given that one glass of red wine will cut your life short. “Look, one drink is most likely not going to do any harm, the problem is when you turn that one drink around to five to seven drinks a week for women or 10 to 14 for men,” says neurophysiologist Louisa Nicola, M.S. Complications start cropping up with chronic moderate consumption—whether it’s one or two a night, or all your drinks stacked up on Friday or Saturday, she says.
How Bad is Alcohol, Really?
Here’s how alcohol affects your body at different levels of consumption:
Moderate alcohol consumption (up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) has been linked to lower levels of certain inflammatory markers, and thus, inflammation (4). But Anastasia Jandes, M.D., PharmD, IFMCP, previously told The Edge she doesn’t recommend using that as an excuse to drink.
Sipping on a few too many margaritas can put excessive stress on your body’s detoxification systems, she says, leaving you more vulnerable to chronic diseases linked to inflammation like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (5).
While some studies suggest light to moderate alcohol consumption can help fight cardiovascular disease, heavier drinking may have the reverse effect (6). For example, studies suggest that drinking one to two drinks per day might reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, but tip back another and your risk of either incident significantly increases (7).
Drinking is bad news for your brain. One study found that drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol was associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia; though, that risk significantly increased with heavy drinking (8).
Nicola points out, however, that chronic alcohol intake, even at a low level, can cause neurodegeneration. One study of over 30,000 generally healthy middle-aged adults found that drinking even one to two drinks on average per day resulted in shrinking of the white and grey matter in the cerebral cortex—the outer layers of your brain that house associative memories, and your ability to think and plan (9).
“This is one of the reasons why neurodegenerative diseases are such a problem. You start to see the symptoms in your 70’s, but the damage starts in your 30’s. You think it’s not doing any damage because you don’t feel any symptoms, but you’re slowly eroding your neurons,” says Nicola.
Alcohol is a potent carcinogen—there’s simply no way around it (10). Per Huberman, since alcohol is both water and fat-soluble it can easily pass into organs and cells, causing widespread damage in the body.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including bowel and female breast cancer. It has been proposed that for every ten grams of alcohol per day (one beer, wine, or shot of hard alcohol in the US is about 10 to 12 grams of alcohol) your risk of breast cancer may increase anywhere from 4 to 13 percent, per Huberman. And the risk of developing cancer increases substantially the more alcohol you consume.
If you’re trying to shed a few pounds, your drinking habit ain’t helping. “[Alcohol] is especially disruptive for people who are overnourished for three reasons: it’s an “empty” calorie source that offers zero nutritional value; the oxidation of ethanol delays fat oxidation (11), which is the exact opposite of what we want if we’re trying to lose fat mass; and drinking alcohol very often leads to mindless eating,” says Attia in Outlive.
“Alcohol lowers the inhibitory circuit in your brain, and you become more susceptible to things that you wouldn’t normally do, like eating a donut,” says Nicola.
The metabolism of alcohol is rough on your liver. Alcohol appears to trigger the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines, elevating inflammation and promoting liver damage (12). Regular drinking can also lead to alcoholic fatty liver disease—a build-up of fat cells in the liver linked obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Alcohol kills bacteria and doesn’t discriminate against what type of bacteria it kills. Huberman describes the effect of alcohol on your gut as a two-hit model: It kills the good bacteria in your gut and it disrupts the lining of your gut—releasing bad bacteria into your bloodstream.
To make matters worse, one study found that this bad bacteria meets up with pro-inflammatory cytokines (which are produced in your liver) in the brain. This may disrupt the neural circuits that control alcohol intake, encouraging you to drink more (13).
“Ethanol—which is the active ingredient in alcohol—blocks you from getting into deep sleep and REM sleep,” says Nicola. Meaning, whether you struggle to fall asleep after drinking or not, alcohol diminishes sleep quality across the board (14). “Quality sleep is one of the core ingredients to fighting off neurodegenerative diseases,” she adds.
The closer you drink to sleep, the worse the effects. “Alcohol has a half-life of four to five hours, so if you drink at happy hour at say, 6 p.m., that alcohol will stick with you until around 11 p.m., which can be way too late to fall asleep anyway,” says Nicola. Plus, that’s only if you don’t order another round.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
The less alcohol the better, according to longevity experts. “If you classify as a moderate drinker then you begin to see some of the negative effects of alcohol,” says Nicola. So, basically, don’t be a moderate drinker—which the CDC categorizes as seven drinks a week for women and 14 drinks per week for men (15). This is a little more lax than Attia, who advises both men and women drink no more than seven drinks per week and less than two drinks per day.
How Alcohol Impacts Life Expectancy
If you aren’t willing to cut your drinking habit cold turkey, you’re probably wondering exactly how many years it will set you back. One study suggests when compared to adults who drank less than seven drinks per week, drinking seven to 14 drinks per week shaved around an extra six months off their life expectancy (16). However, kick back 14 to 25 drinks, and you’re looking at one to two years.
Then Why Do Some Chronic Drinkers Appear to Live Longer?
If alcohol is bad for us, then how do you explain the “French Paradox”—which claims the low rates of heart disease in French people (despite their fatty diet) are linked to their red wine consumption? Or the long-lived people of Sardinia, who commonly drink a few glasses of wine a day? “The Sardinians get more sunlight, eat better food, move more than us—there are so many variables at play, alcohol can’t be pegged as the cause of their good health,” says Nicola. Long-lived chronic drinkers live longer despite their drinking habit, not because of it, Attia points out in his book Outlive.
Are Some Types of Alcohol Healthier Than Others?
Sure, some types of alcohol are less calorie-dense than others, while some simply bring us more joy. You can always argue there’s benefit to a dirty martini (extra olives, of course) one way or another. Still, “alcohol is alcohol,” says Attia. Whether you stick to vodka neat or a 500-plus-calorie margarita, the alcohol still has the same effects on your body. Sorry.
The Bottom Line
If your goal is to live longer, longevity experts say the less alcohol, the better. The more you drink, the greater your risk of inflammation, heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and weight gain. Drinking can also disrupt your sleep and gut health which are essential for overall health. Still, one study linked moderate drinking (seven to 14 drinks) with a six-month shorter life expectancy and heavier drinking (14 to 25 drinks) with a one- to two-year shorter life expectancy, which in the grand scheme of things might be worth the trade-off you simply *can’t* watch football without a beer in hand.