What is the Safe Amount to Consume Alcohol?

Here’s an expert recommendation

Consuming alcoholic beverages in excess can be harmful to the health of the body. That’s why experts often recommend limiting alcohol intake in moderation. However, it is better if we completely stop consuming alcoholic beverages. Because, recent studies show, limiting alcohol intake even in moderation can cause brain aging more quickly.

There is growing evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption has negative effects on the brain. However, the underlying mechanisms are unknown. “Moderate” drinking was defined between 7 to <14 units of alcohol a week for women and 7 to <21 units for men. There is a possibility that accumulation of iron in the brain may play role as excess brain iron has been described in several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In the study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, researchers showed evidence that alcohol directly related to cognitive decline. In this study, scientists studied the relationship between self-reported alcohol intake and iron levels in the brain — which represents a potential mechanism for alcohol-related cognitive decline. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to ascertain iron content of each brain region and liver tissues, a marker of systemic iron.

Researchers collected data from 20,965 participants from United Kingdom, whose average age was 55 and 48.6% of participants were female. A total of 2.7 percent of the participants involved did not consume alcohol, while the rest consumed an average of 18 units of alcohol per week. For the record, 18 units is almost equivalent to six glasses of wine or 7.5 cans of beer.

“Drinking more than seven units of alcohol per week was associated with the accumulation of iron in the brain.”

The researchers, Anya Topiwala believed that this study was the largest study to date. She said that drinking more than seven units of alcohol per week was associated with the accumulation of iron in the brain. Higher brain iron is associated with poorer cognitive performance — poorer executive function and fluid intelligence and slower reaction speed. Iron accumulation can be a cause of alcohol-related cognitive decline.

The basal ganglia — an area in the brain that helps us perform cognitive, emotional and movement-related functions had some of the highest iron concentrations in the brain and suffered the greatest aging. There is a significant alcohol-age interactions with susceptibility, suggesting that alcohol may magnify age effects on brain iron.

Though light alcohol intake (drink <7 units of alcohol) is better than moderate intake, abstinence is still the best option. Never drinker had the lowest amount of brain iron and the best cognitive performance. This can indicate that there may be no safe level of alcohol consumption for brain health.

There may be no safe level of alcohol consumption for your health

Previous study from the same author support these findings. Using 30 year longitudinal data on alcohol consumption, the researcher found there was no protective effect for light drinkers compared with abstinence. Compared with abstinence, moderate alcohol intake is associated with increased risk of adverse brain outcomes and steeper cognitive decline.

According to NHS, it’s recommended to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across 3 days or more. That’s around 6 medium (175ml) glasses of wine, or 6 pints of 4% beer. There’s no completely safe level of drinking, but sticking within these guidelines lowers your risk of harming your health. Here’s how you can cut down on alcohol:

  • Don’t keep alcohol in your house. Having no alcohol at home can help limit your drinking.
  • Drink slowly. Sip your drink. Drink soda, water, or juice after having an alcoholic beverage. Never drink on an empty stomach.
  • Choose alcohol-free days. Decide not to drink a day or two each week. You may want to abstain for a week or a month to see how you feel physically and emotionally without alcohol in your life. Taking a break from alcohol can be a good way to start drinking less.
  • Choose drinks that are lower in alcohol. Try lighter beers — under 4% ABV. As a rule of thumb, white and rosé wines are lower in strength than reds. Or try swapping some or all of your drinks for no or low-alcohol alternatives..
  • Stop people pleasing. Practice ways to say no politely. You do not have to drink just because others are, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to accept every drink you’re offered.
  • Ask for support. Cutting down on your drinking may not always be easy. Let friends and family members know that you need their support. Your doctor, counselor, or therapist may also be able to offer help.

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Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

Editors ChoiceWhat is the Safe Amount to Consume Alcohol?
Isabella Soerjanto MD
Isabella is a medical doctor, living in Bali, Indonesia. She is an empathetic and compassionate general practitioner with a lively and energetic character. She is eager to put all of her knowledge and skills to use and be of service to patients and the hospital. She is passionate about writing, medical humanities & education, and adventures.
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