Is moderate alcohol consumption beneficial to your mental health? One recent study suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce one's risk of depression, and that complete abstinence may increase depression risk, but we need to review the study analytically. Does it indeed prove a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and depression, or is it a mere case of circumstantial evidence?
First, let's look at the study.
Moderate alcohol consumption linked with lower depression risk
Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased risk for depression, so researchers went on to see if it's a case of causality.
They conducted a study with 5,667 participants in their 50s who, from 1994 to this point, have been consistent moderate drinkers, occasional drinkers, or heavy drinkers. The aim was to measure their current depression scores.
The results showed that both occasional (light) and moderate drinkers had lower depression scores, while heavy drinkers had higher scores. Those who abstained from alcohol also had higher depression scores, which suggests that alcohol abstinence may increase one's risk for depression over the years.
- Moderate = more than 1 but less than 14 drinks/week
- Occasional = less than or equal to 1 day drinking/week
- Heavy = 14 drinks per/week or more
But still, studies like this can't prove causation. The relationship between low alcohol use and depression could just as well be circumstantial.
Let's look at it this way.
Consider consistent moderate and occasional drinkers. Chances are, these individuals, on occasion, had opportunities to hang out with friends and grab a drink. They didn't drink daily out of compulsion or just because they wanted to but because they were with friends. We could say they were more outgoing.
That suggests they had more social connections, which is key to reducing the risk of depression.
So could it be that it wasn't the alcohol but the strong social connections they had that made them less likely to fall into depression?
And for those who didn't drink at all, could it be that they were more introverted and therefore were more predisposed to depression, or they were more engrossed in their life and work to have time for a drink?
We cannot say for sure. But one thing is certain: the risks of alcohol consumption, regardless of the amount, far outweigh the benefits, if any.
What is moderate drinking?
One drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men is considered moderate alcohol consumption. This will typically amount to less than seven drinks per week for women and less than 14 for men.
Negative effects of "moderate" alcohol on your health
Even light to moderate alcohol use shows significant negative effects. Studies show that as few as one or two daily drinks can cause brain volumes to shrink. (One daily drink is equivalent to moderate alcohol consumption.)
The shrink increases as alcohol consumption increases, especially in 50-year-olds.
For example, in 50-year-olds, the brain changes after drinking half a beer or a glass of wine a day were equivalent to aging by 2 years. An increase from a glass of wine to 1½ daily can cause changes equivalent to aging by 3.5 years.
Consuming above 7 units of alcohol weekly (about 3½ glasses of wine or 4 bottles of beer a week) leads to iron accumulation in the brain. And iron accumulation is usually a precursor to cognitive decline like Parkinson's disease.
And let's not talk about other health risks that alcohol poses, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, cancer, and weakening of the immune system. The list goes on.
It doesn't happen in one day. As we've seen, the effect of alcohol accumulates, and over time, it aggravates and shows up, and it's always not pleasant.
How much alcohol is safe?
These findings contrast with governmental recommendations on safe/moderate drinking limits: one drink per day for women, and two for men.
Two drinks per day equals 14 a week, which is considered heavy drinking. And two drinks a day is linked with a decrease in brain volume.
In summary, it won't be best to expect moderate alcohol use to reduce your risk of falling into depression. At least, not by itself. Even "light" alcohol intake is risky after all.
If you can't completely abstain from alcohol, especially in social environments, it may be best to keep it within one drink every other day. And if you're in your 50s and 60s, it's best to abstain for your mental and physical health's sake.