There’s a myth we love to tell ourselves. It happens pretty much no matter who we are, where we are, what we’re doing at the time. It’s a myth that speaks to the heart of our perceptions of health, and what the word ‘healthy’ actually means.
It’s a myth that, sometimes, is just too easy to believe.
We love the story that things that we know are bad for us are actually good for our health. Chocolate, wine, ice-cream, the worse the better, in this case. You read a media story that tells you that actually, those kilos of MacDonald’s fries you’ve scoffed in the last year could be keeping your hair on your head, and even though it’s complete nonsense you want to believe, so you don’t look too closely at the claim.
And it’s happened again.
This week, hundreds of stories have popped up with the seemingly-dubious claim that alcohol is good for your brain. According to every media source from the Economic Times to CNBC to *shudder* The Daily Mail, alcohol isn’t causing Alzheimer’s and other brain disease like we thought — well, it is, but only sometimes — it might actually be the cure we’ve been looking for all this time!
It sounds too good to be true.
I’ve written about the problem with moderate drinking before. Basically, if you look at a population the people who are healthiest tend to be the people who drink a moderate amount — they do better than people who don’t drink at all and people who drink a lot. However, once you start controlling for things like wealth and cultural factors, it turns out that the protective effect of moderate drinking disappears.
This is not surprising. Alcohol causes many cancers, is associated with liver, heart, and brain disease, and is just generally not great for your health.
It’s no surprise that the same thing holds true for Alzheimer’s disease. High levels of alcohol consumption are known to cause Alzheimer’s, but low levels are actually associated with a lower risk of developing the disease. However, to quote a 2015 systematic review:
“ There is insufficient evidence to suggest abstainers should initiate alcohol consumption to protect against dementia”
We know drinking moderate amounts of booze is associated with lower levels of brain disease, but it isn’t clear whether this is because of alcohol having a protective effect on the brain or whether it’s just that rich people drink low levels of booze and this skews our findings.
Enter our new study.
It’s actually a very interesting piece of research. The scientists took a bunch of mice, gave them either no booze, a bit of booze, or a lot of booze, and had a look at how their brain function changed. There appeared to be some protective effects in the brains of mice who had a little booze, as well as detrimental effects on those who had a lot, compared to the placebo control. They concluded that this might explain the discrepancy between Alzheimer’s rates — that alcohol provides a mild benefit to the brains of people who drink a little bit of it, so they get less brain disease.
Pretty amazing? Maybe not so much.
There are a few obvious issues here.
Firstly — and I know I say this a lot, but still — these are mice. It is possible that human brains work entirely differently. It’s not unlikely that what you see when giving IV alcohol drips to mice in a lab is actually not the same as what you see when someone does shots off an attractive man’s chest in a bar. As I mentioned above, it’s probable that a lot of the protective effects of moderate drinking are actually just due to rich people being the ones who drink moderately.
But more importantly, remember when I said a bit of booze? That’s actually somewhat misleading, because even the “low alcohol” group was getting roughly the equivalent of 4 standard drinks a day. It’s about 2/3 of a bottle of wine. That is borderline binge drinking.
This is an issue, because the epidemiological research I was talking about earlier — the studies that show a reduced risk from moderate drinking — categorized alcohol intake very differently. Generally, these studies define moderate drinking as ~8 drinks per week, about 1/3 of what these mice were getting in their IVs.
A Wonderful Story
So here we are, back where we started. We all want to be told that booze is actually good for our health, even though it’s pretty clear that it isn’t so great. Yes, there may be some benefits to drinking, but at the level that these mice were getting hammered you’d be putting yourself at a hugely increased risk of cancer and liver disease, which mostly cancel the good bits out.
It’s the same caveat that a lot of ‘miracle cure’ stories have in common. Chocolate might have some benefits because of flavanoid compounds, but it’s also basically just sugary fat. Ice-cream may improve cognitive performance in the short term*, but again it’s terrible for your health overall. Vodka could potentially reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, but that’s hardly comforting if you die at 50 from liver cancer.
The point is not that this study was done badly, or that the scientists were wrong: this is pretty cool research. It may indeed be a partial explanation of something that has confused health researchers for years. It may lead to new and interesting therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.
But it’s not a reason to drink. Or, to quote the researchers in the study itself:
“This study performed in mice should not be viewed as a recommendation for alcohol consumption guidelines in humans”
If you have the occasional glass of wine, there’s probably not much reason to worry. It’s not the best thing to drink, but dammit it’s delicious and sometimes you need that after a long day at work.
Just don’t trick yourself.
There’s still no good reason to believe that booze is good for your health.