Drinking, a healthy pleasure


Jan Snel, Professor at the University of Rotterdam and associate with ARISE (Associates for Research Into the Science of Enjoyment), has written a book on the simple pleasure of moderate drinking. He regards the feel-good factor as the basis for good health.

Moderate alcohol consumption is good for the heart. What is more, scientific research shows that an average of two glasses a day has all kinds of beneficial effects for the general state of health. Epidemiological research would seem to show that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of health problems, gall stones, kidney stones, pancreatic cancer, gastric ulcers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphatic cancer, and benign prostate enlargement and prostate cancer, up to and including Parkinson’s disease. The underlying mechanisms of certain of these beneficial effects have since been decoded, inter alia the effects on the heart and the blood vessels, the effects on sudden death.
Moderate enjoyment of alcohol increases life expectancy. Most of the serious researchers will even admit that alcohol is the wellspring of these health-giving effects. Others would prefer to find it in other substances, such as polyphenols, anti-oxidants, or even vitamin B6.

Happy hour

Well, if that’s all true, why aren’t these joy-joy substances available on the open market in pill form? So why, for example, don’t we just swallow an alcohol pill and prevent cardiovascular disease? According to Jan Snel, psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, there’s no real point. Because the health-giving effects of moderate drinking are not limited to physical well-being. Alcohol consumption also has a beneficial effect on cognitive and psychological health. The odd glass or two a day puts some lead in the old pencil; our older brothers, our older sisters, he says, remain socially more “with-it” – and therefore more self-reliant. A daily “happy hour” therefore has a significant psychological impact. Those of us who drink alcohol in moderation are usually more resilient as regards the slings and arrows. We “kvetch” less. We are less disposed to fling ourselves off high places. We enjoy a more rewarding, and a more fulfilled social life than do dry-as-dust non-drinkers or, indeed, excessive drinkers.
Scientists are rather disposed to seek the explanation for the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption in ethanol, or in other substances. What they tend to overlook, however, is the reason why people like to drink a beer or two. We drink alcohol “for the hell of it”. Enquiries suggest that 60% of moderate drinkers drink because we like the nice taste. And the nice disinhibiting effects. It is more than possible that the feel-good factor, procured from moderate consumption, is behind the real health-giving result. That, at any rate, is the gospel according to Professor Jan Snel.

Good for the immune system

Sad to relate, there is, nonetheless, little extant research in this connection. Such scientific literature as exists would suggest that other activities, such as listening to music, eating sweets, pursuing relaxing activities or just having a good laugh do the immune system a power of good. In other words, these pleasant activities have a good fall-out as regards physical well-being. Did you know, for instance, that people who like to nibble candies live longer than people who don’t? By the same token, “occasional nibblers” will live longer than teetotalers. The U-curve for moderate “sweeties” consumption is remarkably akin to that for the known U-curve for judicious alcohol consumption, says Snel in his book. Relaxing activities and hobbies are known to enhance mental thereness and awareness, to raise the general feeling of well-being, job-satisfaction, etc. In fact, all forms of pleasure-giving activities do the immune system no end of good. They ensure a modicum of calm and equilibrium and provide a natural antidote for the Shit-That-Happens.
Enjoying a cool glass of beer or a nice drop of wine draw together all the virtues and the benefits of all the foregoing activities. It is a pleasurable occupation, we do it in pleasant company, it cheers us up and, more often than not, lends our spirits wings so that we too charm and entertain. In short, moderate alcohol consumption is fun. So enjoy, and be well.

Drinking for fun, or drowning your sorrows?

Drinking for fun is an altogether different proposition than drinking to forget. That was shown in a broad-fronted research in Heidelberg, in the early Nineties. The study tracked a group of 50 to 60 year-olds over a period of 13 years. During that period, 2.5% of moderate drinkers died from cardiovascular diseases, as against 3.4% of total abstainers and 5.6% of drinkers who drink for no other reason than to forget. The researchers therefore suppose that the feelings people have about their drinking, not drinking – the who, the why and the wherefore – also contribute towards the objective effect on physical health.
Other research indicates that self-blame and hangover go hand in hand. Nor is this any respecter of sex. Being hung over is quite bad enough; self-loathing is no friend. Instead of blaming yourself for breaking your golden rule of a moderate alcohol consumption, why not just appreciate the good times? When you see the balance tipping over into excessive alcohol consumption, well, whose fault was it? You know yourself you’re in the wrong, says Snel. People just don’t like to face up to their own drinking habits. Most of us could insist on the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption, enjoying a glass of beer or wine in the company of friends. Learning sane and sensible drinking needs good teachers. Young adults like to experiment; they want to push and test the limits. Pushing to extremes, the parents’ dread, wanes with increasing age. Parents must show their children how to enjoy alcohol, how to appreciate alcohol. Try to prohibit alcohol, for fear of abuse, and all you do is offer your children the self-defeating fascination of the forbidden fruit.

Alcohol, the cold, hard facts
Health-giving effects of moderate alcohol consumption
Jan Snel
Gorcum Publishers, Netherlands
Release date: June 2002


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