Q: I don’t drink regularly—typically only a cocktail on a special occasion. Yet I keep reading about the health benefits of a glass of wine with dinner. Are they so great that I should add alcohol to my routine?
A: The health benefits—and risks—of alcohol are a little complicated. A small amount of booze (one to two servings per day for men, one-half to one serving per day for women) can keep your arteries young and possibly reduce your risk for diabetes, but it also has a direct toxic effect on your immune and brain cells, and it may increase your risk for certain cancers, particularly in women. Because most Americans age faster from arterial diseases (i.e., strokes and heart attacks) than from immune diseases (i.e., cancer and infections), overall, a little alcohol makes your RealAge younger—but you need to look at your family history to decide whether it’s worth the potential risks. For instance, if you have any alcohol or drug abuse in your family, I would never suggest increasing your alcohol intake. And if your family health history has more deaths from cancer than from heart disease, it may not be a smart move, either. But if your family does not have a strong history of cancer or substance abuse, it might be worth tossing one back a couple of times per week.
One interesting note: While the resveratrol in wine is healthy for you in certain ways, you can actually imbibe any type of alcohol to get the arterial benefits—it’s the alcohol itself that keeps your arteries young. So assuming your cocktail of choice isn’t a 400-calorie sugar bomb, you can enjoy it knowing it’s helping you stay healthy and young.
Q: I know you shouldn’t have more than a drink or two per day, but my buddies and I like to go all out on St. Paddy’s Day. Is it OK to save up that allowance and have a few extras in one day?
A: Unfortunately, no—seven drinks on Saturday night (or, for St. Patrick’s Day, a Monday night!) does not equal one drink per night. That’s because our bodies aren’t equipped to handle that much alcohol at once, and the immune dysfunction and aging we mentioned previously begin to overwhelm any arterial benefits once you get to about four drinks for men and three for women.
However, for the sake of being realistic, if you go on a bit of a bender no more than four times per year, the immune effects will likely be of minor concern—so if you don’t smoke, pick at most four days of festivals and celebrations per year (like Christmas, Thanksgiving, your birthday and St. Pat’s) to break food and drink guidelines. The caveat is that even this small amount of overindulging can increase your risk for cancer and infections, and that effect is even stronger if you smoke. So you decide whether that’s worth it—and if you smoke, quit, will ya? We can help (visit YouDocs.com).
Q: I’m over 40, not depressed, and I think I have a healthy relationship with alcohol. But there’s alcoholism in my family. How strong is the genetic link, and is there anything I should be doing to keep my drinking in check?
A: The genetic link is stronger than 140-proof booze. Ask yourself: Do I remember my first drink? Do I look forward to even one drink? Do I ever get angry when I drink? Unfortunately, if the answer to any of these is yes, you probably have the genetic predisposition, and we would urge you to stop drinking while you still can, because that predisposition lasts a lifetime.
You might think that because you’re not in your roaring 20s anymore and aren’t depressed, you can handle it or can quit anytime. Here’s the thing: It’s more common than you might think for men in their 50s to develop depression, and those men often end up self-medicating with alcohol. You’re much better off stopping now, sticking to it and never facing that risk.
Q: I get nasty hangovers even when sticking to one or two drinks, and I keep seeing ads for this pill you can take to prevent them. Do hangover pills work?
A: Anecdotally? Maybe. But we’re data-driven and can find no data—none—in any scientific or even quasi-scientific sources that indicate any of those pills work better than plain old time. Instead, look at the cause of the hangover (other than simply drinking too much) to understand how to prevent and treat it: Hangovers happen when toxins in the alcohol shift across the blood-brain barrier and leave you feeling lousy—your head pounds, your stomach churns, and your whole world spins faster than a motorcycle tire. A few things can help:
➻ Choose clear liquors such as vodka and gin—darker liquors like whiskey contain more hangover-causing toxins such as congeners, the compounds that give flavor, color and aroma to alcohol.
➻ While you drink, eat foods with healthy fats, such as avocados and walnuts—they will help slow the absorption of alcohol so your bloodstream has more time to process it.
➻You’ve been told to alternate a glass of water with each glass of alcohol—and while no randomized studies prove it, we also suggest taking in plenty of water and some caffeine the next day. The water helps treat the dehydration alcohol can cause, and caffeine can reduce headaches because it constricts your arteries.
Q: I get a bad headache the morning after having a couple of drinks. Is it safe to take Tylenol?
A: No—combining acetaminophen and alcohol can damage your liver and kidneys. Plus, the headache may indicate that your body lacks an enzyme responsible for detoxifying alcohol. If this happens with all forms of booze and other family members have the same issue, you might be missing the enzyme—which also indicates you may be at a higher risk for liver and kidney damage. As a result, taking Tylenol is an even worse idea for you than the average Joe.