Health benefits of different alcoholic drinks

By John Murphy
Published June 30, 2020

Key Takeaways

Have you heard this news through the grapevine? Researchers have just reported that light to moderate drinking may preserve brain function in older age, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open

When compared with non-drinkers, middle-aged and older adults who had a drink or two a day tended to score better on cognitive tests for mental status, word recall, and vocabulary. Daily tipplers also had lower rates of decline in each of these cognitive domains compared with teetotalers. (The optimal amount was between 10 and 14 drinks per week.) 

These results, however, don’t imply that those who drink less should start indulging more, according to lead author Ruiyuan Zhang, MD, a PhD student at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

“It is hard to say this effect is causal,” he added, noting that it was an observational study. “So, if some people don’t drink alcoholic beverages, this study does not encourage them to drink to prevent cognitive function decline.”

But, there are many alcoholic drinks to choose from. Do they all have health benefits? 


In medieval Europe, the water wasn’t always safe to drink. But beer (which is boiled during the brewing process, killing off many dangerous microbes) was considered a healthy and nutritious beverage. 

In moderation, beer still is something of a healthy beverage. For instance, drinking beer is associated with fewer cardiovascular events. In one meta-analysis, researchers found that drinking a moderate amount of about two 12-oz glasses of beer per day (between 25 g and 43 g of alcohol per day) significantly reduced vascular risk. In fact, these moderate beer drinkers had lower vascular risk than both heavier drinkers and abstainers. 

Beer also improves cholesterol levels. In a recently published comprehensive meta-analysis, researchers reported that moderate beer consumption significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels and also improved blood vessel elasticity. 

What’s the ingredient in beer that provides these health-giving properties? Researchers still aren’t sure, but the malted beverage has alcohol, polyphenols, and other compounds specific to beer (some of which are derived from hops and yeast). “Indeed, a hypothetical beneficial effect could be due to the action of either alcohol or polyphenols alone or a synergic effect of both,” wrote the authors of the latter meta-analysis. 

Notably, xanthohumol, a polyphenol found in hops, has been shown to have a neuroprotective effect against oxidative-stress–induced neuronal cell damage, which could potentially slow the development of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases.


Speaking of phenolic compounds that go straight to your head, let’s talk Champagne. 

The bubbly beverage contains specific phenolic compounds that may counteract the memory loss associated with aging as well as help to slow the onset of neurodegenerative brain disorders such as dementia. Researchers have shown that drinking as few as one to three glasses of Champagne per week can improve spatial memory.

“Changes in spatial working memory induced by the Champagne supplementation are linked to the effects of absorbed phenolics on cytoskeletal proteins, neurotrophin expression, and the effects of alcohol on the regulation of apoptotic events in the hippocampus and cortex,” the researchers wrote. 

The same researchers had previously found that Champagne could be good for cardiovascular health. Drinking around two glasses of champagne per day can have beneficial effects on vascular function—similar to that of red wine—and potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke.

Red wine

Did someone mention red wine? The beverage of Bacchus has a bevy of health benefits. 

Red wine appears to be cardioprotective. In the Copenhagen City Heart Study, which involved more than 13,000 adults who were followed over a 12-year period, people who drank 3-5 glasses of wine a day had half the risk of dying from coronary heart disease or stroke as those who never drank wine.

Red wine can also improve cholesterol levels. Several studies have shown that people who drink wine in moderation have improved HDL cholesterol and, in some cases, lower LDL cholesterol levels. This effect has been studied in a variety of populations, including postmenopausal women and patients who’ve had carotid arteriosclerosis or heart attack

Red wine may also slow cognitive decline. Researchers have linked moderate consumption of red wine to a lower risk for dementia. (White wine may also protect against cognitive decline, among its other benefits.)

Red wine is also good for your gut. In a recent study published in Gastroenterology, researchers showed people who drank wine had increased microbial diversity in their gut microbiome. Even drinking wine on rare occasions helped increase the diversity of gut bacteria. Some of those who drank wine also tended to have lower BMI, possibly explained in part by the changes in gut bacteria, the researchers speculated. 

Last but not least, a study following over 5,000 men and women found that drinking 2-7 glasses of wine per week was associated with lower rates of depression.

What explains red wine’s health benefits? You’ve probably heard of resveratrol, a polyphenol with antioxidant properties found in the skin of grapes. But, red wine also has several other polyphenols—like ellagic acid, quercetin, catechin, tannin, and others—that may produce these benefits (possibly in conjunction with alcohol). 


Mention the words “ellagic acid” and “alcohol,” and you might think of whiskey instead of wine. And with good reason. “Single malt whiskies have more ellagic acid than red wine,” a whiskey expert once pronounced. Research suggests that ellagic acid, in particular, has preventive effects against several types of cancer.

While it remains to be verified that whiskey has more of this polyphenol than wine, researchers have shown that whiskey has a higher concentration of ellagic acid than most distilled spirits. 

Ellagic acid and other polyphenols found in barrel-aged whiskey—including gallic acid and lyoniresinol—are scavengers of reactive oxygen species. In fact, the longer the whiskey was aged in the barrel, the higher was its reactive oxygen scavenging activity, researchers found. 

One daily drink of whiskey (or other hard liquor) may also have a beneficial effect on the heart. In the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, researchers found that having one alcoholic drink a day was associated with a lower risk of heart failure, and this was independent of risk reductions for coronary artery disease or heart attack. 

Cheers to your health!

Given all the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, is it time to raise a glass to your health? 

“[I]t seems premature to advise people who do not drink to start drinking, since the risk of addiction is far from being negligible (it is estimated to be 13% in mature adults),” concluded the researchers who studied wine’s effect on dementia. 

“Alcohol consumption should remain a pleasure and should not be considered as a medication,” they advised. 

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