Two whiskey glasses

Evgeny Karandaev

New Year’s Eve wasn’t that long ago, and you may or may not remember the night well. One thing is certain—many people enjoyed a glass or two (or more) of bubbly while welcoming 2012. But do you know what alcohol actually does to your body?

“Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that is absorbed mostly in the stomach and small intestine,” explains Dr. Kanwal Khan, an internal medicine physician with Diagnostic Internists of Chesterfield at St. Luke’s Hospital. “It is metabolized in small amounts by the liver, and the rest circulates through the body. It can affect any organ, but the most affected ones are the central nervous system and liver. It affects sensory perception by interacting with certain receptors in the brain, and depending on amounts ingested, it can cause excitatory or inhibitory behavior.”

We know there are some people who definitely should not consume alcohol. They include pregnant women, people who have a family or personal history of alcoholism, people with liver or pancreatic disease, stroke victims, and anyone who will be operating dangerous machinery or driving before the alcohol is completely metabolized.

On the other hand, there is some evidence to indicate that moderate drinking may have cardiovascular benefits. “The healthiest dose of alcohol has not been definitively determined,” says Dr. Rajiv Patel, an internal medicine physician at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center and medical director of the New Vision substance abuse rehabilitation treatment program. “The ideal dose of alcohol is likely about six grams per day. One portion of alcohol, approximately 10 to 15 grams of ethanol, can be found in one glass of wine, one bottle of beer or one mixed drink. In the largest study of alcohol and mortality, the maximal benefit occurred at one drink daily for both men and women.”

When determining whether to indulge in a daily cocktail, women also should consider that the Women’s Health Study of more than 38,500 women found the practice correlated to a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.

Teetotalers need not worry about missing out on potential health benefits: “People who don’t drink alcohol are not missing out,” Khan says. “They can compensate by establishing healthy lifestyle and eating habits.”

Yet even reviewing all the research results regarding alcohol and health, Patel notes that “there have been no long-term, randomized trials of alcohol consumption on clinical outcomes. While there is strong evidence of causality based on epidemiologic studies, and short-term trials have found beneficial effects on cardiovascular risk factors, it remains possible that some of the health benefits and risks of alcohol consumption represent associations unrelated to the alcohol itself.”

Ultimately, drinking behaviors are largely cultural. “Alcohol consumption, like many things in our lives, has to be thought through,” Patel says. “It can be enjoyed in moderation by some people but can be dangerous for others from a physical, psychological and sociological standpoint. It’s for each person to decide for themselves if they are capable of drinking in moderation or at risk from an abuse or medical disease standpoint.”