Knocking back a drink after work may help keep your heart healthy, according to two meta-analyses from scientists at the University of Calgary. Overdoing it, however, can be dangerous to health, increasing the risk of heart disease, cancer and depression.
The first of two analyses published Tuesday on the BMJ website reviewed 84 existing studies on the link between alcohol consumption and heart disease, heart attack or stroke. The study found that people who drank moderately were 14% to 25% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people who didn’t drink; they were also less likely to die from a heart-related event. (More on Time.com: Should Parents Let Kids Drink at Home? New Data Show Many Do)
For the second study, researchers reviewed the effect of alcohol consumption on 21 different biological markers of heart risk — including levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, and levels of fibrinogen, an indicator of poor heart health — in healthy adult participants of 63 studies. The researchers found that men and women who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol — none of whom had cardiovascular disease — increased their HDL levels and lowered fibrinogen.
The studies defined moderate drinking as no more than one glass of alcohol a day for women and up to two glasses a day for men. It didn’t matter what type of alcohol people consumed (beer, wine or liquor), the studies found; the results were consistent across the board.
Data from other observational studies shore up these findings: a 10-year study of French and Irish men found that regular drinkers had a significantly lower risk of heart disease than nondrinkers or binge drinkers. Again, the key is moderation. Depression rates go up for both binge and nondrinkers, who have shorter lifespans than their moderately drinking counterparts — at least according to most studies. At least one 20-year study did find, however, that heavy drinkers actually outlived those who consumed moderately. (More on Time.com: Even Small Amounts of Holiday Drinking Boost Cancer Risk)
Still, drinking too much is dangerous, especially if you binge-drink. It ups the risk of violence, injury, accidents and unwise drunken behaviors. Over-imbibing may also increase the risk of certain cancers — including breast, liver and oral cancers — according to a study by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. Doctors aren’t sure exactly how alcohol influences cancer development, but they speculate that the ethanol or alcohol in liquor and beer can damage cells, making them unstable and vulnerable to cancer.
Taken together the current evidence suggests that a glass or two of wine or whiskey a day could protect your health, but it certainly doesn’t give you license to go out on a bender.