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Wine and Health Part 2: Wine and Non-Cardiovascular Diseases

This feature is the second of two pieces written by the Winedoctor, for an extended piece concerning the beneficial aspects of moderate alcohol consumption. To view the whole article, visit the Wine Anorak website.

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities
The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, 5:23

The vast majority of research concerns the relationship between alcohol consumption and coronary heart disease. In recent years, however, new evidence for the beneficial effects of alcohol concerning other medical conditions has arisen.

Helicobacter pylori

This organism was first cultured from human stomach biopsies in the early 1980s, although its presence had been described prior to that. It is of significance because it is associated with inflammation and ulceration of the upper parts of the digestive tract. A recent meta-analysis of all the previous studies also demonstrated an association with stomach cancer.

Research by Brenner in 1999 demonstrated an inverse correlation between alcohol consumption and Helicobacter pylori infection. That is, those who drank less alcohol had a higher rate of infection with the organism. It should be born in mind, however, that the conventional medical opinion sees alcohol as an irritant, and therefore more likely to induce stomach inflammation.

Type II diabetes

This form of diabetes is often referred to as 'late-onset', and generally begins in middle age. It will often respond to measures such as weight loss and sensible diet, or oral medication, rather than insulin injections.

A large epidemiological study by Umed involved 20 951 US physicians as subjects. Some results published this year demonstrated a decreased risk of type II diabetes with in those that ingested alcohol, at amounts varying from two drinks per week up to a drink a day.

Ischaemic stroke

This involves the infarction (death) of a part of the brain tissue following obstruction of the blood vessels supplying that part of the brain. Acute ischaemic stroke is a major cause of death and disability worldwide. The pathological process has been likened to that behind coronary heart disease, and so it is perhaps not surprising that alcohol ingestion should have a protective effect.

In 1999 Berger published results from another large epidemiological study involving 21 870 US male physicians. The results demonstrated that there was an association between taking more than one drink per week and a reduced risk of ischaemic stroke. There was no association between alcohol intake and haemorrhagic stroke, which is a different pathological entity.

Female bone density

A common problem in post-menopausal women is rapidly decreasing bone density, which leads to an increased likelihood of fractured bones. One particularly common fracture in elderly women, conveying significant morbidity, involves the neck of the femur (thigh-bone). Hormone replacement therapy is a significant advance in improving many aspects of women's health in the post-menopausal period, but it is interesting that alcohol is also beneficial.

In 1999 Feskanich published results of a study of 188 women, which was adjusted for confounders. Spinal bone density was shown to be higher in those that consume alcohol compared with non-drinkers.

Benign prostatic hypertrophy

This is a very common disease among middle-aged and elderly male populations. It is not to be confused with prostatic cancer. The main symptoms of benign hypertrophy of the prostate is a gradual difficulty in passing urine, which may eventually lead to complete blockage of the urethra.

More recent results published in 1999 by Platz concerned 24 439 male health professionals, in a study controlled for confounding variables. There was a reduced risk of benign prostatic hypertrophy with a moderate intake of alcohol compared with those who abstain.

Conclusion

There is evidence that a regular, moderate intake of alcohol can have beneficial health effects on more than just the heart.

As with coronary heart disease, however, alcohol ingestion does not top the list of protective mechanisms in any of these diseases. A more sure way to reduce the risk of many of these diseases, especially ischaemic stroke, is to quit smoking and follow a healthy lifestyle, eat a sensible diet and take regular exercise. Anyone planning this should discuss it with their general practitioner.

It's safe to say that, whilst very interesting, none of the above evidence should induce abstainers to take up drinking, just for the health benefits.