Drinking in the New Year - and feeling the benefits


We are in the middle of the festive season and New Year's Eve beckons as a big night of celebration. Alcohol will be part of the event for many people.

Unfortunately, some will engage in binge drinking, and this can be a risky business as a large intake of alcohol may put people at risk of stroke, heart attack, injury and sexually transmitted disease. But for those who tipple more moderately - and the best way to consume alcohol is in small to moderate amounts throughout the year - there are well-defined medical benefits.

Moderate drinkers are 30 per cent more likely than non-imbibers to survive a heart attack. US research has found that two alcoholic drinks a day lowers the risk of diabetes in men by 36 per cent. Appropriate amounts of alcohol can also contribute to healthy bones and help prevent stroke. As well as the general benefits of alcohol, specific drinks have specific health attributes. In the case of red wine, for example, a wealth of research suggests that a glass or two a day protects against coronary heart disease. It may also help guard against diabetes, stroke and osteoporosis. Flavinoids in red wine act as antioxidants - which mop up the destructive chemicals called free radicals - and help blood flow.

White wine is not quite as effective as red, but it has similar benefits.

A pint of beer contains about one-tenth of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of the vitamin niacin. Beer is a rich source of silicon, with a pint containing about 20 per cent of the RDA of the mineral. Research in Britain has linked silicon to bone strength. Regular beer drinkers therefore reduce their chances of osteoporosis. And studies from across the Atlantic have linked the consumption of dark ale with a reduction in the incidence of eye cataract. The researchers have put forward an antioxidant theory for this observation. Dark beers also contain high levels of folic acid (folate) which we know helps to lower blood levels of homocysteine, a compound linked to arterial disease.

Cider is a good bet for anyone trying to avoid iron deficiency anaemia (a low blood count). A pint of cider supplies one-fifth of the RDA of iron. It is also a good source of vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, all essential to a healthy body.

Not many of us can afford to drink champagne regularly, but for those who can, there is evidence of improved lung capacity compared to that of regular drinkers of other wine.

Whiskey also contains antioxidants, which are derived from the oak barrels it is matured in. Although present in smaller amounts than other drinks, a shot or two of whiskey a day should help lower the risk of heart disease.

What about gin and vodka? Gin, unfortunately, is devoid of vitamins or antioxidants. It is made from juniper berries, which have a diuretic action, so in theory it won't harm the kidneys. Vodka, meanwhile, is a purer alcohol, with a low content of toxins. It has almost no colouring or flavouring, which makes it the best drink for avoiding hangovers.

For non-alcohol drinkers, ginger ale is good at calming upset stomachs. Dry ginger ale has less sugar, and is thus a healthier option. Cranberry juice is a proven anti-infective, one large glass of 25 per cent cranberry juice reducing the incidence of urinary tract infections. Tomato juice contains lycopene, an antioxidant agent linked with lower levels of prostate cancer. It is also associated with lower rates of cardiac disease.

The Irish Pharmaceutical Union has issued some helpful guidelines for the festive season. Its hangover advice is to drink plenty of fluids and to eat something sweet in order to combat dehydration and hypoglycaemia. As to alcohol and medication, it says "the golden rule is do not mix the two". It warns in particular of the combined effects of painkillers, antihistamines and cough remedies, when mixed with alcohol: "Their effects are enhanced and are likely to contribute to a driving accident even if you are under the legal limit."

I hope this quick guide to alcohol will help readers negotiate a healthy pathway through the New Year celebrations and also inform any health resolutions for 2003.

Have a good one!

Dr Muiris Houston can be contacted at mhouston@irish-times.ie but regrets he cannot answer individual queries