Moderate Drinkers Get Some Good News

When it comes to heart health, 14 drinks is 14 drinks is 14 drinks, right?

Not necessarily, according to a new study that suggests the way people spread out their drinking may make a big difference.

Researchers at the University of Rochester gave lab mice the equivalent of two drinks, seven days a week, and gave others the equivalent of seven drinks, twice weekly. They found that moderate, daily drinking lowered cholesterol and decreased artherosclerosis -- the hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke -- while binge drinking increased its development. The binge-drinking mice also gained three times the amount of weight of their moderate-drinking counterparts.

"The main take-home message is that it's very important to address the pattern of alcohol consumption as well as the volume over the week," said John Cullen, Ph.D, a professor in the department of surgery at the University of Rochester and the study's lead author.

"Most people think that if they fall within the guidelines, they're okay," he continued. "But they need to address the pattern they're drinking that in."

The government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks for men.

The Rochester study is not the first to consider the impact of drinking patterns on health. A recent report found the way women spread out their drinking can affect successful aging -- defined by the researchers as having good cognitive function, no major chronic diseases or physical limitations and good overall mental health. And previous population studies have found ties between alcohol and cardiovascular well-being, though the Rochester researchers say theirs is among the first to not rely solely on self-reported data.

Cullen said research has not yet made fully clear why people's drinking patterns have such a great effect on heart health. He explained that in small amounts, alcohol may have anti-inflammatory effects, but when people drink too much, the primary breakdown is acetaldehyde -- sometimes known as the hangover chemical. Cullen has done previous research suggesting this may cause certain cells to stick to blood vessel walls, which may initiate atherosclerosis.

"There seems to be a delicate balance -- a tipping point," Cullen said. "That could explain why pattern matters."

Indeed, Dr. Ronald Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the University of California San Francisco and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, said the seeming benefits of moderate drinking should in no way prompt non-drinkers to start.

"Even though non-drinkers can have higher risk for heart disease than moderate drinkers, there are serious potential consequences associated with drinking," he said. "Individuals may be prone to addictive behavior. The optimum range is fairly narrow."

The biggest takeaway of the new study, according to Krauss?

"It's pretty obvious," he said. "Don't go on binges."