Is alcohol good for you?

Most people have probably long known the research that finds a couple glasses a day of wine seem to be beneficial to a person’s health.  I was a bit surprised last week when a friend told me about the latest research that drinking alcohol, period, is supposed to be good for you.  I get the cool phytochemicals and what not in wine, but what exactly is there in beer or rum that would be helping.  My best guess– nothing.  Rather, there’s got to be some confound.  So, I was just doing a period check on Jonah Lehrer’s awesome blog today (I really should check more often,though, it’s not as if I don’t read enough blogs), and he basically explains what’s going on:

But drinking isn’t just about de-stressing. In fact, the cultural traditions surrounding alcohol tend to emphasize a second, and perhaps even more important, function: socializing. For as long people have been fermenting things, they’ve been transforming the yeasty run-off into excuses for big parties. From Babylonian harvest festivals to the bacchanalias of Ancient Greece, alcohol has always been entangled with our get-togethers. This is for obvious reasons: Alcohol is a delightful social lubricant, a liquid drug that is particularly good at erasing our interpersonal anxieties. And this might help explain why, according to the new study, moderate drinkers have more friends and higher quality “friend support” than abstainers. They’re also more likely to be married.

What does this have to do with longevity? In recent years, sociologists and epidemiologists have begun studying the long-term effects (.pdf) of loneliness. It turns out to be really dangerous. We are social primates, and when we’re cut off from the social network, we are more likely to die from just about everything (but especially heart disease). At this point, the link between abstinence and social isolation is merely hypothetical. But given the extensive history of group drinking – it’s what we do when we come together – it seems likely that drinking in moderation makes it easier for us develop and nurture relationships. And it’s these relationships that help keep us alive.

Of course, relationships have their own chemistry, a language of dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, etc. But I think that in the rush to decipher the bodily molecules, we are missing the essential lesson, which is that some of the most valuable health benefits don’t come from compounds that can be bottled, or condensed into a gel capsule. Instead, they come from other people, from those lovely conversations we share over a glass or three of wine.

That sounds about right to me.  I suspect that if you plugged me into some statistical model, I’d come out looking like a moderate drinker.  I enjoy socializing over drinks  and often do, but I simply prefer the taste of diet coke (and I really do not need alcohol to lower my already too-low inhibitions) while my friends have their beers.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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