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Drinking alcohol in moderation linked to lower risk of depression

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Drinking in moderation lowers risk of depression, according to new study

Drinking wine in moderation has long been touted as having health benefits for those with coronary artery disease, but new research shows it may also lower our risk for depression, according to a study published in the journal BMC Medicine.

Most cultures and countries include alcoholic beverages as a normal part of their diet, although alcohol consumption varies across the globe as it pertains to the habitual type and pattern of alcoholic beverage consumed.

Generally speaking, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is increasing worldwide, as is unipolar depression, which remains the single most prevalent mental disorder across the globe.

While previous studies have shown that heavy drinking of alcohol is related to mental health problems like depression, there have been few studies that have looked at the relationship between mental health and light or moderate drinking.

But, now, researchers from Spain report on a cohort study that followed over 5,500 light-to-moderate drinkers for up to seven years. What they found was that drinking alcohol in moderation actually lowered the risk and incidence of depression.

The researchers analyzed 2,683 men and 2,822 women between 55 and 80 years of age over a 7-year period. The study participants were from the PREDIMED Trial, which conducts research around nutrition and cardiovascular risk. None of the participants had ever suffered from depression or alcohol-related problems when the study started.

For the study, the main alcoholic beverage drunk by the study participants was wine. The researchers then tracked their alcohol consumption, mental health and lifestyles over a period of up to seven years through yearly visits, repeated medical exams, interviews with dieticians and questionnaires.

After analyzing all the data at the seven year mark, the results showed that light to moderate drinkers, those who drank a daily average of five to 15 grams of alcohol, had lower risks of depression than those who had opted not to imbibe. Moderate drinkers showed even lower risks for depression than the light to moderate group.

The lowest rates of depression were observed in those who drank two to seven glasses of wine per week, and the results remained the same even after the researchers adjusted them for lifestyle and social factors, such as smoking, diet and marital status.

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Ironically, drinking more wine doesn’t mean more health benefits. In fact, the exact opposite holds true, as numerous studies suggest drinking greater amounts of alcohol actually increases the risk for depression. So moderation is the operative word here.

Prior research has also suggested that moderate amounts of alcohol could protect against heart disease, and the authors of this study say the process may be linked.

"Unipolar depression and cardiovascular disease are likely to share some common pathophysiological mechanisms,” they said. “Moderate alcohol intake, especially alcohol from wine, has been repeatedly reported to be inversely associated with the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Some of the responsible mechanisms for this inverse association are likely to be involved also in a reduced risk of depression."

The study authors added that there are many strengths for this study, including the large sample size. But they also warn about some limitations.

"We are not exclusively using a clinical diagnosis of depression. Probably, we are achieving a high specificity at the expense of losing sensitivity," they explained.

"Moreover, there is a possibility that patterns of alcohol consumption may be associated with decisions to seek care. If heavy drinkers were less likely to seek medical care, this could result in the rates of depression being under-estimated among heavy drinkers."

Prior research has suggested that wine consumption could promote many other health benefits. For example, a study from the University of Leicester last year found that a chemical in red wine, called resveratol, could help to prevent cancer.

And in a 2001 Danish study, researchers suggested that the link between wine and mental health was largely a byproduct of robust and fulfilling social interaction, with the wine itself serving mainly as a facilitator.

“Our data demonstrate that wine drinking is a general indicator of optimal social, cognitive, and personality development in Denmark. Similar social, cognitive, and personality factors have also been associated with better health in many populations,” the researchers concluded. “Consequently, the association between drinking habits and social and psychological characteristics, in large part, may explain the apparent health benefits of wine.”

1. Alcohol intake, wine consumption and the development of depression: the PREDIMED study, published online in BMC Medicine, 30 August 2013.
2. Better psychological functioning and higher social status may largely explain the apparent health benefits of wine: a study of wine and beer drinking in young Danish adults, published in Arch Intern Med. 2001 Aug 13-27;161(15):1844-8.