Moderate drinkers — particularly women — who give up alcohol tend to experience better mental health and achieve a greater sense of well-being afterward, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
This finding is just the latest in a growing body of research that is calling into question the long-held belief that moderate drinking — defined by U.S. health officials as having up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men — is good for health. Earlier this year, for example, a study in The Lancet reported that moderate drinking was associated with an increased risk of stroke. Other studies have linked moderate drinking to an increased risk of breast and colorectal cancer.
Those studies, however, looked only at the effect of moderate drinking on physical health. The current study examines its effect on mental well-being.
Different countries, similar results
For the study, researchers at the University of Hong Kong analyzed survey data collected from almost 10,400 people in China and more than 31,000 people in the United States. The participants included life-long abstainers, former drinkers and current drinkers. None had a history of heavy drinking.
Both surveys asked questions about the participants’ drinking patterns, as well as questions about their physical and mental well-being. The questions were asked at least twice over a four-year period — between 2009 and 2013 for the participants in Hong Kong and between 2001 and 2005 for the participants in the United States.
The authors of the study looked to see if there were any changes in the participants’ health that might be associated with their drinking patterns. They found that among both the Chinese and the American participants, men and women who were lifelong abstainers reported the highest level of mental well-being at the start of the study.
They also found, however, that the most significant improvement in mental well-being occurred among the women in both countries who started the study as moderate drinkers but who then gave up alcohol. In fact, at the end of the study their mental well-being was similar to those of the abstainers.
For men, the biggest improvement was found among those who were former drinkers at the start of the study.
Starting or continuing drinking, on the other hand, was not associated with better physical or mental health.
These findings held even after the researchers adjusted the data for other factors known to affect mental well-being, such as age, household income, education level and physical activity.
Limitations and implications
This was an observational study, so it can’t prove that quitting drinking caused the improved mental well-being reported by the participants. Other factors, not adjusted for in the study, may explain the results.
Also, the participants self-reported their use of alcohol, and self-reports of any health-related behaviors can be unreliable.
In addition, the study covered a relatively short period of time.
Still, the study’s findings are yet another reminder that we have much to learn about the effects of the moderate consumption of alcohol on human health.
“Our findings that lifetime alcohol abstainers report the highest level of mental well-being and quitting alcohol improves mental well-being among women, suggest caution in recommending that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life,” write the study’s authors.
“Further studies are needed to establish clearly the impact of alcohol use on mental and physical well-being before alcohol is recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle,” they add.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the website for the Canadian Medical Association Journal.