Ethanol, also known as drinking alcohol or booze, may be the oldest and most popular drug in human history. In fact, there is strong evidence that alcohol was consumed before the dawn of history. Archaeological evidence suggests that Stone Age villagers in China were drinking beer roughly 9,000 years ago.
Even animals have been known to imbibe. Scientists have found that tree shrews and slow lorises drink fermented nectar in the forests of Malaysia (Scientific American, July 28, 2008).
Although alcohol causes a great deal of misery when abused, there is growing evidence that mild to moderate intake can have health benefits. People who drink modest amounts of alcohol are less likely to have heart attacks (Circulation, May 4, 2010). Usually, a modest amount is defined as not more than one drink daily for women or two drinks a day for men.
Even women who have had heart attacks already may be less likely to have a second one if they are light drinkers (American Journal of Cardiology, online Oct. 20, 2011). In this study, light drinking was defined as a few drinks a month up to three a week.
In recent years, researchers have discovered that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2011; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2010). It also appears to reduce the chance of dementia slightly (Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, August 2011).
Despite the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, many people should refrain. In addition to those who abuse alcohol, individuals with chronic health conditions like liver disease could endanger themselves. Anyone who regularly takes pain relievers containing acetaminophen (including Tylenol, Percocet and hundreds of others) could damage the liver with even modest alcohol intake.
Other popular pain relievers such as ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are more irritating to the digestive tract when people have had an alcoholic beverage. But taking a heartburn medicine such as cimetidine (Tagamet) or ranitidine (Zantac) could be a mistake.
Seventeen years ago, scientists discovered that people who had taken cimetidine or ranitidine before consuming ethanol ended up with higher blood-alcohol concentrations and might be more impaired than they expected (Digestive Diseases, November-December 1994). The lead researcher warned, “Under conditions mimicking social drinking, ranitidine increases blood alcohol to levels known to impair psychomotor skills needed for driving” (American Journal of Gastroenterology, January 2000).
There are dozens of other drugs, from antidepressants to blood pressure pills and diabetes drugs, that may interact badly with alcohol. Readers who would like more details about these problems may request our Guide to Drug and Alcohol Interactions. Please send a large (No. 10), self-addressed stamped envelope and $1 to: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, Dept. K, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.
Modest alcohol consumption may have several health benefits, but holiday revelers should be cautious. Combining medications with alcohol could be life-threatening.