Is alcohol good for you?
It’s clear to me that 1) alcohol is a toxin and 2) it can help with having fun, which is good for you, but in this episode I consider whether some dose of alcohol might actually be fundamentally good for you. I discuss three ways this might work and what the optimal dose might be, as well as sharing a story of how I used alcohol to help clear up a fungal infection.
Tune in to learn more!
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Read the Transcript
Drinking. Is alcohol good for you? That’s the question we’re going to tackle today.
Hi. I’m Dr. Chris Masterjohn of chrismasterjohnphd.com, and this is Chris Masterjohn Lite, where the name of the game is “Details? Shmeetails. Just tell me what works!”
And today we’re going to talk about whether there might be benefits to consuming alcohol.
Now one thing—two things are very clear to me. On the one hand, alcohol biochemically, physiologically is bad for you. It’s a toxin. I think that’s really clear.
On the other hand, I think it’s also very clear that fun and relaxation are extremely important to your health and that many people find alcohol helpful in having fun and relaxing, and to that extent, alcohol may indirectly have health benefits. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
The idea that I want to play with today is the idea that there’s some dose of alcohol that, despite alcohol being a toxin, is physiologically and biochemically health-promoting. And if alcohol is physiologically helpful, it is through the principle of hormesis, which means that a little bit of something that’s bad for you is good for you. And the reason that the bad thing is good for you in small enough doses is that you provide just enough of the harmful stimulus for your body to react by improving its defenses against it that the net result is for your body to be more fit and more resilient. On the other hand, if you had provided more of that same thing, you would have overwhelmed your body’s ability to handle it, and you would have produced a toxic outcome.
Now, how might alcohol do this? Well, let’s think of some of the ways that alcohol is harmful. One of the reasons that alcohol might cause liver damage is because alcohol and vitamin A share some of the same enzymes in their metabolism.
The same enzymes that help you activate vitamin A help you get rid of and detoxify alcohol. So if there’s too much alcohol going through your liver, and it’s hogging all those enzymes, you might not activate as much vitamin A, so you don’t get the benefits of the vitamin A on your liver’s health, and therefore you interfere with your liver’s ability to maintain its health.
Another example of how alcohol is harmful is that alcohol causes oxidative stress. You can think of oxidative stress as the general wear and tear that occurs on your tissues that always accompanies life and increases with age, but is worsened in the presence of toxins and other harmful factors, among them alcohol.
Another harmful thing of alcohol is that it interferes with histamine metabolism. As I talked about in the previous episode, which I’ll link to in the description, alcohol downregulates diamine oxidase, or inhibits its activity, one of the key enzymes in histamine metabolism, but there are other enzymes involved in histamine metabolism where alcohol actually shares the same enzymes, just as it does with vitamin A, and they can compete for each other for metabolism, so alcohol could contribute to allergies or histamine intolerance by getting in the way of those enzymes metabolizing histamine because they’re being used for the alcohol.
Now, if you take any of those principles, you could say that there could be a hormetic effect because if indeed alcohol causes oxidative stress, the body will react to that oxidative stress by improving its defenses against the oxidative stress. If indeed alcohol is needed by—needs certain enzymes for its metabolism, it will tend to upregulate those enzymes.
So a small amount of alcohol might make you make more of the enzymes involved in getting rid of the alcohol, which means that you might get more of the enzymes involved in activating vitamin A to get more benefits of vitamin A, and you might make more of the enzymes involved in metabolizing histamine so that you can better get rid of the histamine. In those cases, what your body is actually trying to do is help you get rid of the alcohol, but in so doing, you increase the capacity overall to activate vitamin A, get rid of histamine, and protect yourself against oxidative stress.
The problem is that alcohol is a toxin, and it’s a toxin because there’s a certain amount of alcohol that will just hurt your ability to make vitamin A, cause oxidative stress, and impair your ability to clear histamine.
The question is where is the optimal dose. Well, the interesting thing is if you look at the observational data, which is just asking people how much alcohol they drink and then looking over time what is their health outcome, this doesn’t prove cause and effect, but there’s a massive amount of this data that’s carried over a very long period of time. And what you see is that for cardiovascular disease, there seems to be a maximal protective effect of alcohol that’s somewhere between 2.5 grams of alcohol per day and 30 grams of alcohol per day.
To put that in perspective, a standard drink is 14 grams of alcohol. So we’re talking about a maximal effect that caps out at two drinks per day, but actually starts and perhaps is most maximal at two and a half grams per day, which is about a sixth of a drink.
So we’re talking about a very small amount of alcohol. If we look at diabetes and stroke, type 2 diabetes and stroke, we’re seeing something similar, although the maximal effect seems to be closer to 10 to 14 grams a day, which is about roughly two-thirds of a drink to one drink per day.
So we’re talking about a very small amount of alcohol. I’ll share a personal story. When I was going through last year, at the beginning of last year, when I was going through a—and for those of you who are listening to this or watching this far in the future, we’re talking about the beginning of 2017. I was going through a mold and barium health crisis that involved a very bad skin infection with some type of fungus. And the antifungals were helping, but they weren’t really doing the trick. One thing that I noticed was that every time I would drink alcohol, it seemed to get better. And now, I’m a moderator.
I don’t really drink. I don’t binge drink alcohol. Usually if I drink, I have a couple drinks. So I wasn’t really getting drunk. And so I started to pay more attention to this, and I started to think maybe there’s a vitamin A-related issue here because vitamin A protects against fungal infections, vitamin A is very good for the skin barrier, and maybe the alcohol is making me make more of the enzymes that activate the vitamin A.
And that made me think maybe I’m running vitamin A deficient, and so one of the things that really helped me was just supplementing with vitamin A. That was the thing that made me think of it. Once I started supplementing with vitamin A, that was one of the key factors that made my skin start clearing up. But I also started testing different doses of alcohol. And what I found was that if I did go out and binge drink and have five or six drinks, it would be terrible for my skin.
But compared to not drinking, including a little bit of alcohol was very, very helpful for my skin. And in fact, combining vitamin A supplementation and this small dosing of alcohol really kind of tweaked everything for the perfect protocol. Like the vitamin A really helped 80%, but the little dosing of alcohol really made up the other 20% that made me get the most bang for the buck out of that vitamin A.
But listen, the dose of alcohol that I was using was a half of a drink three times a week, right? So we’re talking about, have a drink three times per week. That’s a quarter of a drink per day basically, which is very close to that, it’s a little more than that two and a half grams, where the maximal decrease in heart disease starts occurring.
Now, maybe if I was in a healthier state, I could have gotten more of a hormetic effect out of one drink three times a week or something like that, but the point being, probably the amount of alcohol that is good for you from a physiological and biochemical standpoint is well below the amount of alcohol that you need to have fun.
But then again, having fun is good for you. So every once in a while, I think it’s okay to get drunk, but don’t expect that to be doing you any biochemical or physiological favors.