Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Wine can help with depression. Or make it worse. Or kill you.

Research published Aug. 30 noted lower levels of depression with drinking “two to seven small glasses of wine per week.” I found it in – wait for it – Wine Spectator. The Spanish study also was reported on other medical news sites, however. And the report could be the loophole a drinker may use to avoid quitting, or the justification an ex-drinker may use to slip out of sobriety.

First, to credit the authors of the study, the research followed more than 5,500 men and women over age 55 for seven years, specifically looking at amount and type of drink and level of depression. “Moderate” drinkers of wine were found to have lower levels of depression than either abstainers or problematic drinkers. Lead author of the study, Miguel A. Martínez-Gonzále of the University of Navarra in Spain explained, “Problematic alcohol intake may be associated with depression not only because of increased intake of ethanol but also because of other alcohol-related unhealthy lifestyles or because of the social environment surrounding problematic drinkers (job loss, family problems, financial problems or other addictions). Any of these circumstances may be a potential trigger for depression, even in the absence of a specific detrimental role for ethanol.” (This link connects to the university's news release.)

Other research from February this year contradicts that message somewhat, noting that a third of depressive episodes are tied to alcohol abuse of the disease of alcoholism and the periods of depression are “different from depressive episodes caused by other life events.” (See full article.) The February study, lead by noted alcohologist Marc Schuckit of the University of California, San Diego, focused on the problematic drinkers avoided in the University of Navarra study.

Heavy drinking causes depression. Light drinking alleviates depression. That seems to be the message. The question on the table is how to distinguish between heavy and light, and whether the individual can drink at all. Physicians define light as 1.2 drinks per day, moderate as 2.2 drinks a day, heavy as 3.5 drinks daily and abusive drinking was defined as 5.4 drinks a day.

Those with the disease of alcoholism have one choice: Zero drinks per day. Total abstinence is the only way to keep the disease in remission.

Experts have long known that heavy drinking can spur temporary episodes of depression while many with alcohol use disorders use alcohol to relieve depression. They self-medicate. "I don't know that the average person realizes that heavy drinking can induce mood problems," said Schuckit.

There is one additional consideration, stemming from a Norwegian study, also from February. “The evidence of the harmful effects of alcohol outweighs data on the benefits of drinking,” a physician wrote in an online issue of the journal Addiction. In a critical analysis of the health-boosting, disease-preventing characteristics of alcohol, Norwegian psychiatrist and addiction researcher, Hans Olav Fekjær, notes in the journal, “Altogether, the evidence for alcohol's ability to prevent diseases is considerably weaker than that for alcohol causing several kinds of harm.”  (Full article.)

Fekjær also noted claims that moderate wine drinking has health benefits. “Wine drinkers generally had more formal education, better dietary and exercise habits and more favorable health status indicators. Altogether, there is ample evidence that groups with different drinking habits differ in several other ways than their drinking, making it difficult to separate the effects of drinking habits from other factors.”

Other evidence-based studies on diseases demonstrate increased health risks with alcohol consumption. For example, Boston University's study earlier this year (see related article) concluded when it comes to cancer, “No amount of alcohol is safe."

While there is observational data that light or moderate drinkers have a reduced risk of several diseases which are influenced by lifestyle factors, whether or not the lower risk is due to alcohol is a more complicated issue. “Taken together, the existing evidence does not seem to meet the criteria for inferring causality. For almost all the diseases, we do not know of any plausible biological mechanism explaining a preventive role for alcohol. Alcohol's possible ability to prevent diseases should probably not be considered as an established fact.

“The absence of definite knowledge leaves plenty of room for wishful thinking, which we observe frequently on this topic,” Fekjær concluded.

Don't drink the Kool-Aid … or in this case, the wine.  Consider other possible consequences of the "cure" for depression.

Scroll down for the replay of the Dr. Jeanette Gallagher show feature with Scott Stevens. Lucy Pireel's "All That's Written" included a feature on Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud called "When alcohol doesn't work for you anymore."  Details on the third literary award for Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud can be found on, plus the interview with Scott Stevens at Christoph Fisher Books.  Mr. Fisher is an acclaimed international historical fiction novelist from the UK.  
SAVE THE DATE:  Scott Stevens will be part of the opening night symposium for the REEL Recovery Film Festival San Francisco.