Scientific Reasons to Abstain from Alcohol
17 July 2022
Alcohol consumption is dangerous and expensive, for both individuals and communities. The scientific evidence is strong, as I’ll show you.
Before I do that, I should acknowledge and comment on a conflict of interest. That is, of course, my Mormon culture. Like most Mormons, I was educated to avoid alcohol. Known as the “Word of Wisdom,” the health code of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically prohibits consumption of alcohol.
Because of that, I have surely inherited a bias against alcohol. But don’t dismiss my thoughts on this topic too quickly.
Like most Mormons, I was also educated to abstain from coffee and tea. And I do abstain. But that’s only for symbolic reasons, as an expression of cultural solidarity. For health reasons, I still consume the main bioactives of coffee and tea through dietary supplements.
Symbolism is also a reason that I abstain from alcohol. But, in contrast to coffee and tea, alcohol gives me many additional reasons to abstain.
To be fair, there may be some positives to alcohol consumption. In particular, it facilitates aspects of sociality in many cultures — at least until it doesn’t, paradoxically. It may also provide small cardiovascular health benefits when consumed moderately — although those benefits may be attributed to polyphenols that are readily available from non-alcoholic sources. But, as I think you’ll clearly see, the positives of alcohol consumption are vastly outweighed by the negatives.
That’s enough preaching from me, at least for now. I’ll let the scientists preach.
Below are some quotes from peer-reviewed studies that have described the negatives of alcohol consumption. There are also direct links to the studies themselves, for your deeper consideration. These are just a representative sampling. If you want to read more, check the content at the links for many more links to related studies.
Health Costs of Alcohol Consumption
“Alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse or harmful use cause substantial morbidity and mortality. Alcohol-use disorders are associated with depressive episodes, severe anxiety, insomnia, suicide, and abuse of other drugs. Continued heavy alcohol use also shortens the onset of heart disease, stroke, cancers, and liver cirrhosis, by affecting the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and immune systems. Heavy drinking can also cause mild anterograde amnesias, temporary cognitive deficits, sleep problems, and peripheral neuropathy; cause gastrointestinal problems; decrease bone density and production of blood cells; and cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol-use disorders complicate assessment and treatment of other medical and psychiatric problems.” (Alcohol-use disorders)
“It has been estimated that alcohol abuse represents the world’s third largest risk factor for disease and disability; it is a causal factor of 60 types of diseases and injuries and a concurrent cause of at least 200 others. Liver is the main organ responsible for metabolizing ethanol, thus it has been considered for long time the major victim of the harmful use of alcohol.” (Alcoholic disease: liver and beyond)
“Alcohol impairs function of neurons and glia, disrupting a broad array of functions including neuronal survival, cell migration, and glial cell (astrocytes and oligodendrocytes) differentiation.” (Human alcohol-related neuropathology)
“The decrease in bone mass and strength following alcohol consumption is mainly due to a bone remodeling imbalance, with a predominant decrease in bone formation.” (Alcohol and bone: review of dose effects and mechanisms)
“A causal association has been established between alcohol consumption and cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and, in women, breast; an association is suspected for cancers of the pancreas and lung.” (Alcohol and cancer)
“Several factors contribute to alcohol-induced cancer development (i.e., carcinogenesis), including the actions of acetaldehyde, the first and primary metabolite of ethanol, and oxidative stress. However, increasing evidence suggests that aberrant patterns of DNA methylation, an important epigenetic mechanism of transcriptional control, also could be part of the pathogenetic mechanisms that lead to alcohol-induced cancer development.” (Alcohol, DNA methylation, and cancer)
Social Costs of Alcohol Consumption
“The harmful effects of alcohol misuse are far reaching and range from individual health risks, morbidity, and mortality to consequences for family, friends, and the larger society.” (Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use: Influences in a Social-Ecological Framework)
“These findings suggest that alcohol at low to moderate doses selectively moderates decision making in the social domain, and promotes utilitarian decisions over those dictated by rule-based ethical principles (deontological).” (Acute effects of alcohol on social and personal decision making)
“Our findings indicate that moderate alcohol consumption inhibits the motivation to cooperate and that homo economicus is stressed and unhappy.” (Alcohol unleashes homo economicus by inhibiting cooperation)
What About Moderate Consumption?
“Estimates of mortality risk from alcohol are significantly altered by study design and characteristics. Meta-analyses adjusting for these factors find that low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking.” (Do “Moderate” Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality)
“Here, we show that the negative associations between alcohol intake and brain macrostructure and microstructure are already apparent in individuals consuming an average of only one to two daily alcohol units, and become stronger as alcohol intake increases.” (Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank)
“Light drinking including even one alcoholic drink a day is associated with increased risks of esophageal, gastric and colorectal cancer.” (The relationship between drinking alcohol and esophageal, gastric or colorectal cancer: A nationwide population-based cohort study of South Korea)
“The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer.” (No level of alcohol consumption improves health)
If you care about healthy longevity, for yourself and others you love, consider abstaining from or otherwise minimizing the consumption of alcohol. If you care about the long term well-being of human civilization, consider advocating abstention from or otherwise minimizing the consumption of alcohol.
Please know that I’m not in favor of criminalizing alcohol consumption. We already tried that in the United States. And it seems to have only made things worse.
Instead, I’m generally in favor of education and individual agency. Make a decision to start consuming less or no alcohol today. Share these studies with family and friends, with friendly encouragement to consume less or no alcohol.
Of course, there may be situations that require stronger interventions. Hopefully law enforcement has the worst abuses covered. And some situations merit therapy and rehabilitation.
In any case, this issue is one of those practical things that we can work on today, to make real incremental progress toward our more speculative hopes for the future. The vast possibility space of human potential presents itself to us ever more clearly, even as we take just one step forward at a time.