Alcohol Use Within Guidelines Still a Risk, Study Shows

Grabbing a beer

Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests staying within alcohol consumption guidelines could still be problematic for health
  • Just a few drinks can bring short-term, negative effects on the body that should be kept in mind
  • When adjusting consumption levels, experts recommend thinking about the reasons you drink, in addition to how much

In addition to potential addiction, alcohol has been linked to a range of health issues, not just for those who drink heavily on a daily basis, but also for those who binge drink—which the Centers for Disease Control defines as four or five drinks in a two-hour period. But even a much lower level of drinking could be problematic, new research suggests.

A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs looked at Canadian drinkers, who have a slightly higher moderation intake than the U.S., and found that even those who follow what's called low-risk drinking guidelines (LRDGs) may not be insulated from alcohol-related health problems.

The most notable example is that researchers concluded just over half of alcohol-caused cancer deaths are experienced by those drinking within weekly limits. For some conditions, like digestive problems, those sticking to LRDGs tended to have greater issues than those who drank more than weekly guidelines. The researchers concluded that adjusting consumption levels downward, for both and women, could have a positive impact.

In Canada, the LRDG is 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men. In the U.S., the recommendation is 7 per week for women and 14 for men. The researchers here suggest lowering the amount to just one drink per day for each—making it more in line with the guideline for U.S. women.

"I don't think anyone is saying don't drink alcohol, ever, no matter what," says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. "Instead, it's a head's up that alcohol can affect you, even when you're drinking the 'right' amount that guidelines suggest."

Challenges Associated With Alcohol Consumption

Part of the reason the recent study may be an alert for some is that it's commonly thought that lower alcohol consumption has minimal effect, if any. But, Scott says, keep in mind that even one drink brings about physiological changes.

For example, as the liver deals with alcohol, it tends to cause a shortage of oxygen. While that’s a temporary process, one study notes that it does interfere with the production of adenosine triphosphate synthesis (ATP), which is considered an energy source for muscles. Inadequate ATP impairs a cell’s ability to perform crucial functions, like repairing damage.

Alcohol is also a vasodilator, Scott adds, which means it can cause some circulation and cardiovascular issues for those who are prone to those problems. Its ability to lower blood sugar quickly, too, may contribute to a hypoglycemic reaction, he says.

Despite negatives like these, though, there's still ample evidence that binge drinking and heavy daily drinking are the habits that really take a toll on the body. The CDC notes that these can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety
  • Alcohol dependence

Asking Why Instead of How Much

Although government guidelines and recent studies provide advice on how much alcohol to have daily or weekly, there are personal considerations when it comes to consumption and especially your own stopping point, says Marc Kern, PhD, an alcohol harm reduction specialist in Los Angeles.

For instance, you may have two drinks and feel unable to put the brakes on until you've had a few more, while someone else can have one drink a week and never want another drop until a week later.

"This is where awareness about your consumption comes into play, when you attempt to moderate your drinking and find that it's difficult," she advises. "As a starting point in looking at your consumption, you should begin with why you drink and how it affects you, rather than focusing only on how much and how often."

If you do feel that you're struggling with curbing alcohol use, consider contacting the SAMHSA National Helpline, a free, confidential, 24/7/365 referral and information service at 800-662-4357.

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  2. Sherk A, Thomas G, Churchill S, Stockwell T. Does drinking within low-risk guidelines prevent harm? Implications for high-income countries using the international model of alcohol harms and policiesJ Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2020;81(3):352-361.

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  5. CDC. Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health. Updated December 30, 2019.