Many moons ago when I wrote The Great Cholesterol Con I provided a very short section at the end on what people should do, to avoid heart disease. It went something like this:
1: Do not smoke cigarettes (to which I would now add – or anything else).
2: Take exercise – that you enjoy. Don’t try to drive yourself into the ground. Walking outside is particularly good, especially on a sunny day.
3: If you don’t drink alcohol, start. If you do drink, drink regularly – don’t binge drink – and make sure that you enjoy what you drink. Drink with friends, drink sociably, don’t drink to get drunk.
4: If you hate your job, get another one – don’t feel trapped.
5: Make a new friend, join a club, find an area of life that you enjoy. Praise other people and try to compliment other people more often.
6: Look forward to something enjoyable every day, every month, and longer term.
Not a very long list I admit, and even at the time I was aware that there were other things that could be done. However, I was reluctant to write yet another ‘ten ways to stop heart disease completely – forever (money back if you die)’ type of book. My sister was critical of my ‘advice free’ book. ‘People want to be told what to do.’was her terse comment. She is good at terse.
My view was that advice should be accepted by the bucketful, but only given out by the thimbleful. People need, I replied with the utmost pomposity, to make their own decisions about what to do with their lives, and not keep looking for some fluffed up latter day prophet to guide them. Not giving direct advice has the added advantage that you won’t get sued, or lose your license to practice medicine. Or at least, it makes it far less likely.
However, in my long and winding series on what causes heart disease I have popped in a few bits of advice along the way. In this particular blog, I am returning to my Great Cholesterol Con advice on alcohol. Whilst writing that book I had noticed, and have continued to notice, that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of dying of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Also, that non-drinkers generally have the shortest life expectancy. In short, if you don’t drink, start drinking.
The rest of the medical profession absolutely hates this message. At heart, you see, most of them are secret puritans. The idea that doing something enjoyable, might also be good for you, is just too much to bear.
“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” H.L. Mencken
Which means that the medical profession have done their best to attack any evidence that alcohol may be good for you. The most common argument used to dismiss the fact that non-drinkers have the shortest life expectancy, is that they have some underlying illness that stops them drinking. It is the underlying illness that then causes them to die, and not the fact that they do not drink.
‘There are ongoing debates about the role of combining different types of current non-drinkers in producing this apparent protective effect (of moderate drinking). Specifically, former or occasional drinkers might have reduced or ceased drinking because of ill health, making the aggregated non-drinking group artificially seem to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.’1
Or maybe not.
You may recognise the exact same argument used on cholesterol levels. In general, those with the lowest cholesterol levels also have the shortest lifespan. A phenomenon noted in almost all long-term studies. This, we are told, is absolutely and certainly NOT because a low cholesterol level is harmful. It is because an underlying illness lowers cholesterol levels and it is the underlying illness that kills people– not the low cholesterol levels themselves. Good try (no evidence).
The irony, of course, is that this would seem to be the perfect illustration of the fact that a low cholesterol level is caused by ill health, and not a sign of good health. Or to put this another way, if a low cholesterol level is caused by an underlying illness, that kills you, then a low cholesterol level can hardly be considered something to be striven for. Can it? (See under PSCK-9 inhibitors increasing overall mortality.)
At present our glorious cardiovascular experts are happy to inform us, in all seriousness, that a low cholesterol level can be both a sign of underlying illness, and a cause of good cardiovascular health. Or, to put it another way, the cholesterol level can be both an effect of illness and a cause of illness. That’s the problem with logic. Misuse it, and it will come around and bite you on the bum.
Anyway, returning to alcohol. Is there any evidence that people who do not drink, do so because they are suffering from an underlying illness? No, there is not. Or, if there is I have never seen it. It is just a meme which, because it fits with firmly held underlying prejudices, has become accepted as a fact.
Actually, when it comes to prejudices, my own is that alcohol – as a chemical – is not protective against CVD. It is protective because in the various forms that humans drink it, it is relaxing, reduces stress/strain, and when it is drunk in company it is part of a lifestyle that is protective. In short, if you are looking for CVD protection, you would be best not to stir sixteen grams of pure alcohol into a beaker containing two hundred mls of water, then consume every morning before breakfast. [Two units].
Far better to uncork a bottle of red wine, (white wine, what is all that about?) thirty minutes before a nice home cooked meal. Then pour it lovingly into a glass, swirl it around a bit, then enjoy. If you can also do this outside, looking over a sapphire blue bay, with boats bobbing in a light breeze, so much the better. [This was never really an option whilst growing up in Scotland.]
In short, I do not believe drinking alcohol is a true ‘drug’ effect. The lifestyle around drinking has a major part to play. However, I may be wrong. Researchers have studied the effects of different types of drink on factors that I consider key for CVD. Endothelial function, and blood clotting factors. It seems that red wine, and beer are the most beneficial.
Here, from a paper entitled: ‘Acute effects of different alcoholic beverages on vascular endothelium, inflammatory markers and thrombosis fibrinolysis system.’
‘Acute consumption of red wine or beer improves endothelial function and decreases vWF levels, suggesting that the type of beverage may differently affect endothelial function and thrombosis/fibrinolysis system in healthy adults.’2
vWF is von Willibrand Factor, something I have written about in the past. Research has demonstrated that people with low vWF levels are up to 60% less likely to die from CVD. vWF tends to make platelets sticky and more likely to cause blood clots. Alcohol consumption also considerably reduces fibrinogen levels, a key clotting factor, at all levels of drinking.
However, if you drink a great deal, the effects can reverse. You also get a sharp rebound in some clotting factors. Heavy drinking appears to increase tissue factor (THE key clotting factor), factor VII, and other pro-clotting factors such as plasminogen activator inhibitor 1 (PAI-1). 3
Clearly, therefore, there does seem to be a ‘therapeutic window’ for alcohol consumption. An amount of drinking where the benefits are greater than the potential harms. Actually, I hate writing the words ‘therapeutic window’ alongside ‘alcohol consumption’. To me, this turns the act of drinking alcohol into a dull and joyless disease prevention activity
Viewing alcohol as some form of drug completely misses the point that there is, I strongly believe, ‘happy’ drinking and ‘unhappy’ drinking. How you drink, is a least as important as how much. I make this point with great confidence despite having no evidence at all to support the statement.
However, if you want to treat drinking alcohol as something like taking a vitamin tablet, or a daily aspirin, then I suppose you can. And good luck with that. You would be like a relative of mine who had been persuaded that drinking red wine was particularly heart healthy. He drank one point five, standard, glasses of red wine every evening with his meal. Not a drop more, not a drop less.
I have no idea if he enjoyed the red wine or not. He was not the sort of man to share that sort of information. He was more of a ‘life is to be endured, not enjoyed’, sort of a man. Still, with his meticulous wine drinking regimen, he remained alive for twenty-five years after a massive, nearly fatal heart attack. So, maybe he was right – and I am wrong.
Anyway, the main reason for writing this blog is that, just before I went on holiday, I noticed that there had been a massive study done on the effect of drinking alcohol on CVD, published in BMJ open. It had the snappy title:
‘Association between clinically recorded alcohol consumption and initial presentation of 12 cardiovascular diseases: population based cohort study using linked health records.’4
Ah, the poetry, the emotional power of it all. Why do researchers feel they must use such emotionally crippled language, the dreaded passive voice? Of course, I know the reason, they won’t get published if they dare use an active verb, or a personal pronoun. ‘I did this.’ Is not a phrase you will ever see in a research paper. More’s the pity. Language and emotion are closely linked, but attempting to use only the most stripped out passive language does not add scientific accuracy, it just makes it very, very, very, dull to read.
Back to the paper itself. It was, of course, observational. However, it was very big. They looked at 1,937, 360 people. And there were 114,859 cardiovascular events, of various sorts. From heart attacks, to strokes, to a first heart failure diagnosis. It also included something that I have not really come across before ‘unheralded coronary death.’ Which means, I presume, dropping dead of a heart attack without any prior diagnosis of heart disease, or any kind.
The results that I was most interested in were the following. The comparison between non-drinkers and moderate drinkers.
Non-drinking was associated with
- 33% increased risk of unstable angina
- 32% increased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- 56% increased risk of unheralded coronary death
- 24% increase risk of heart failure
- 12% increased risk of ischaemic stroke
- 22% increased risk of peripheral arterial disease
- 32% increased risk of abdominal aortic aneurysm
Interestingly, these increased risks were very similar in heavy drinkers: Heavy drinking (exceeding guidelines) was associated with
- 21% increased risk of unheralded coronary death
- 22% increased risk of heart failure
- 50% increased risk of cardiac arrest
- 11% increased risk of transient ischaemic attack
- 33% increased risk of ischaemic stroke (intracerebral
- 37% increased risk of cerebral haemorrhage
- 35% increased risk of peripheral arterial disease
- 12% lower risk of myocardial infarction
- 7% lower risk of stable angina
Which reinforces the fact that there is a level of drinking that is beneficial which lies somewhere between non-drinking and heavy drinking. It is called moderate, but it is very difficult to know what this means. I would guess between one and four units a day.
At what point does ‘heavy drinking’ start. Again, this is difficult to say, as researchers tend to clump anyone who drinks more than ‘moderately’ into the group of heavy drinking. This is a game that I call statistical clumping.
By which I mean, we have (for example) four groups. Non-drinkers, occasional drinkers (one or two drinks a week), moderate drinkers (one or two units a day), then heavy drinkers. ‘Heavy drinkers’ as a group, contains all those who drink more than two units a day. In effect, you are ‘clumping’ together those who drink more than two units a day with those who drink two bottles of gin a day. This kind of skews your figures and makes it impossible to know when beneficial drinking stops and damaging drinking starts. [The same game is played with obesity].
So, where are we? Adjusting left right and centre for all confounders, we are left with a simple fact. If you drink alcohol in moderation (with all the provisos attached to that statement), you will significantly reduce your risk of developing, and dying, or CVD.
So, I stand by my statement made in The Great Cholesterol Con. If you don’t drink alcohol, start. Did the authors of the study recommend that non-drinkers start dinking? Of course not. They would never dare. Here is as close as they got.
‘Similarly, while we found that moderate drinkers were less likely to initially present with several cardiovascular diseases than non-drinkers, it could be argued that it would be unwise to encourage individuals to take up drinking as a means of lowering their risk (although it must be noted that the findings from this study do not directly support this as we did not consider transitions from non-drinking to drinking).
This is because there are arguably safer and more effective ways of reducing cardiovascular risk, such as increasing physical activity and smoking cessation.’
Well, I would agree that stopping smoking and exercise would be more effective than starting drinking. However, the statement is still ridiculous. What of those who do not smoke, and who do take exercise. What of those who will not stop smoking and will never takes exercise. Should they still not drink alcohol, and thus fail to gain the obvious benefits?
The other statement is equally ridiculous…. ‘We did not consider transitions from non-drinking to drinking.’ So, we know that moderate drinking is beneficial. We know that not drinking increases risk. But we don’t know that if you start drinking, this will be beneficial.
I shall state this in a different way. ‘We did a placebo controlled study where we saw that those taking the drug gained benefit. However, we did not start giving those on the placebo the active drug, so we do not know if moving from taking placebo to the active drug would be beneficial.’ Using this logic, no clinical study ever done has ever proven anything. Sigh. Where is the God of logic when you need him – or indeed her.
In the end, I have this to say about alcohol. Moderate drinking (whatever that may be) is not harmful. It is probably beneficial. My own view is that alcohol consumption is tightly wrapped within healthy lifestyles to do with sociability friendship and suchlike, and that the amount of alcohol is only a part of the story. However, if you want to drink a couple of glasses of red wine in the evening – go for it.