alcohol

An obstetrician (who is also a feminist) weighs in on the CDC’s “no birth control, no drinking” recommendation

Hope Ricciotti, MD

Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch

The CDC recently advised all sexually active women of childbearing age, and who aren’t on birth control, to avoid alcohol completely because of potential harmful effects to an unborn child. The science behind the recommendation is sound, but the way it was delivered has raised quite a few eyebrows. In this piece, Dr. Ricciotti examines where the message fell short and describes how she emphasizes shared decision-making and autonomy when she counsels her patients.

Experts say no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Many women think an occasional drink during pregnancy poses no harm, but a recent report suggests that no amount of alcohol is safe for the developing fetus. Alcohol affects the development of many organs, most notably the brain. While fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe form of alcohol-induced damage, is unlikely to result from an occasional drink, researchers are finding that smaller amounts of alcohol can still have a negative effect. For that reason, no alcohol at all is safest when you’re pregnant or plan to conceive. If you’d like help cutting back on alcohol, don’t be embarrassed to talk with your doctor about it—she or he can help.

Should alcoholic drinks come with calorie labels?

Beverly Merz

Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Calorie counts adorn the exterior of cans and bottles of sodas, juices, sports drinks, and many other beverages. Should alcoholic beverages and drinks also come with calorie counts? Yes, argues Dr. Fiona Sim, chair of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, in an editorial in The BMJ. She explores well-supported links between alcohol drinking and obesity. Beginning in December 2015, alcohol-related calorie counts will be available in the United States to some people who dine out. The Food and Drug Administration is requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to provide calorie information for food and some alcoholic drinks. The calorie counts may come as a wake-up call for drinkers who are accustomed to thinking of an average drink as containing 100 to 150 calories. That figure may be true for the standard 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits, 12-ounce bottle of beer, or 5-ounce glass of wine, but the “generous pour” at many bars and restaurants often doubles the amount. Moreover, concoctions containing syrups, liqueurs, juices, cream, and other ingredients can send the calories soaring.

Heavy drinking in middle age linked to memory loss in men

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

For some people, like those with an addiction, any amount of alcohol is too much. For others, drinking alcohol is something of a balancing act — a little may be healthful, while more than a little may be harmful. A new report in the journal Neurology highlights the dual effects of alcohol in men. As part of the Whitehall II study in Britain, researchers assessed the drinking habits of middle-aged men and women three times over a 10-year period. The study participants also took a mental skills test three times over the next 10 years. Compared with men who didn’t drink or who drank moderately, mental decline began to appear one to six years earlier in men who averaged more than 2.5 drinks a day. (There weren’t enough heavy drinkers among women to show any clear differences.) How does a person know if he or she is drinking too much? The CAGE and AUDIT tests can help.

Drinking a little alcohol early in pregnancy may be okay

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

In a new study sure to raise hackles and controversy, an international team of researchers is reporting that pregnant women who drink alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy and possibly beyond aren’t putting their babies at risk for premature birth or low birth weight, or themselves at risk for high blood pressure complications during pregnancy. This goes against recommendations for women to avoid drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The main reason for this is that heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to a long-term and irreversible condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome that can cause long-lasting physical and developmental problems. The medical evidence supporting strict abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy is not very strong. Will there be consensus about whether it’s safe for a pregnant woman to have a glass of wine or a beer once or twice a week? I don’t think we will see that any time soon.

Alcohol: a heart disease-cancer balancing act

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

The message that drinking a little alcohol is good for the heart has gotten plenty of attention. A new study linking alcohol with increased risk of dying from various cancers may temper that message a bit. About 4% of cancer deaths worldwide are related to alcohol use. A new study shows the in the United States, alcohol causes 3.5% of cancer deaths, or about 20,000 cancer-related deaths each year. The most common alcohol-related cancers were mouth, throat, and esophageal cancer in men, and breast cancer in women. At the same time, drinking alcohol in moderation (no more than two alcoholic drinks a day for men and no more than one a day for women) has been linked to lower rates of heart disease and deaths related to it. Advances in genetics may one day let us predict more accurately who can use alcohol in moderation and who should avoid it completely. Until then, it’s best to personally weigh the benefits and risks, ideally with a trusted health care provider.

Non-alcoholic red wine may lower blood pressure

Scientific studies, the media, and even some doctors tout the heart health benefits of red wine. But if controlling blood pressure is important to you, consider this the next time you raise your glass: A new study published online in Circulation Research suggests that non-alcoholic red wine may be better at lowering blood pressure than regular red wine. Powerful antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may be more effective when there’s no alcohol to interfere with them. Spanish researchers compared the effects of regular wine, non-alcoholic red wine, and gin on blood pressure. Non-alcoholic red wine lowered blood pressure and boosted levels of nitric oxide, which helps relax blood vessels. What the study doesn’t tell us is how non-alcoholic red wine stacks up against regular red wine for preventing heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems.