Unfortunately, my past self wasn’t aware of this mission. Back in college I made some, shall we say, less than optimal health choices. Taco Bell and McDonald’s weren’t just late night lapses in judgment; they were what was for dinner. And that wasn’t even the most damaging feature of my lifestyle. No, that was probably the drinking.
I don’t know about you, but if I could go back in time and have a few less beers, I would do it in an instant. Binge drinking – something I did at least weekly in college – unleashes a cascade of inflammation that causes leaky gut, intestinal dysbiosis, and impaired immune function. Yeah, getting hammered is bad for your health. But you already knew that.
By now you’re probably wondering about moderate alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking, most of us have heard, is supposed to be healthy. Which is a nice excuse to have a glass of wine at night and feel pleased with ourselves. I’ve been there.
So does moderate drinking really boost longevity? This is a scientific question, and it’s been studied by scientists. Let’s see what they found.
To begin with, in several studies following large samples of people, moderate alcohol consumption correlated with a reduced risk of dying. No one seems to know exactly why this happens, but one theory relates to alcohol’s suppressive effect on mTOR, or mammalian target of rapamycin. (Rapamycin is a drug that extends lifespan in mice by lowering mTOR.) So theoretically: moderate drinking lowers mTOR, which extends human life.
Not everyone, however, agrees with this theory. In a 2016 meta-analysis, another group of scientists found no significant effect of moderate alcohol consumption on mortality. These researchers combined dozens of other studies into one big study (the meta analysis) and controlled for 2 things in the data:
2) Socioeconomic class
Controlling for these 2 factors eliminated any longevity benefit from alcohol. If you think about it, it makes sense. Abstainers, for one, often quit the bottle because they’re in poor health from all those years of boozing. This skews the mortality data because former alcoholics are in the zero drinks category, which makes moderate drinkers look vigorous by comparison.
As for socioeconomic class: rich people can afford better medical care, better food, better supplements, $10,000 hypoxic training chambers, and so on. Rich people are also more likely to drink moderately than the rest of society. So to avoid another arbitrary boost for moderate drinkers, it’s also logical to control for their money.
Anyways, that meta-analysis seems to be the final word from the scientific community on the question “does alcohol make you live longer?” (Note: since it was published, another study emerged linking moderate drinking to cognitive health. But again, the researchers didn’t control for abstainers or socioeconomic class). So based on the available info, I doubt that alcohol confers a net longevity benefit. I could be wrong.
But for those with gut issues – IBS, leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohns, Celiac, etc. – I’m 100% convinced that abstention is the healthiest choice. Let me give you some examples to back this up.
In this 2016 paper, researchers found that moderate alcohol consumption was correlated with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) in a sample of 196 people. SIBO is an overgrowth of lactic-acid producing bacteria in the small bowel that causes gas, bloating, and hampered digestion. Many cases of IBS are actually cases of undiagnosed SIBO.
Just a couple glasses of wine, another study found, caused a significant increase in intestinal permeability – or “leaky gut” – in those with inactive IBD. We’ve also induced leaky gut in mice under controlled laboratory conditions by getting them very drunk. Leaky gut is a condition in which particles of food slip through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. The immune system then attacks these particles as if they’re pathogens, leading to an inflammatory response. Finally, this inflammation manifests as a spectrum of symptoms from gas to fatigue to joint pain.
The good news is that under the right conditions, intestinal cells can heal in a few days. But ethanol hinders that process by fostering gut dysbiosis (SIBO) and by piercing the wall of the intestine (leaky gut). Which means that even moderate drinking creates non-optimal conditions for healing the gut.
As someone who’s dealt with leaky gut in the past, I take this stuff seriously. I still enjoy red wine occasionally, but it’s no longer a daily practice. I figure the long gaps between my drinking helps my intestinal wall stay impermeable.
The truth is, I don’t miss the old wine habit. Dropping it leveled up my health. And, I’d wager, it’s leveling up my lifespan.