Drink to Your Health

Daily alcohol helps cholesterol in older women

FRIDAY, Feb. 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Move over, oatmeal. Look out, whole wheat toast. Older women have a new way to fight cholesterol -- and it comes not on a plate but in a glass.

The latest buzz on lipid-lowering fares involves alcohol, which new studies show can drop cholesterol levels by a significant margin in post-menopausal women.

"This study does not lead to a recommendation to consume or not consume alcohol. It does provide evidence that may help an individual make informed choices for their own health," says the study author, David J. Baer, a research physiologist affiliated with the United States Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center.

The new research, appearing today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that women can reduce their levels of both triacylglycerides (formerly called triglycerides) and low density lipoprotein (LDL, the "bad cholesterol" ) by drinking one alcoholic beverage (15 grams) a day.

Adding a second drink, for a total of 30 grams of alcohol a day, will increase high density lipoprotein (HDL, the "good" cholesterol).

Fifteen grams of alcohol is equal to a 1.5-ounce cocktail, 12 ounces of beer, or 4 ounces of wine.

The really good news: Women with the highest lipid levels stood to gain the most.

"I suspect that the women who had the highest triacylglycerides had the most 'room' to improve," Baer says.

Like cholesterol, triacylglycerides are a blood fat or lipid, which can clog vessels and increase the risk of heart disease, as well as heart attack and stroke.

So if two drinks are good, can three or more be better? Don't get your hopes up. Baer says no.

"The epidemiologic data suggest that increasing consumption above one or two drinks per day is detrimental and not protective," he says, adding, "higher intakes of alcohol appear to increase triacylglycerides" and do not appear to improve cholesterol levels.

According to nutritionist Maudine Nelson, what's important is that the study documented any drop at all in cholesterol levels in older women. Once menopause occurs, she says, those levels, along with the risk of heart disease, can take a significant jump up.

"Menopause can be synonymous with increasing LDL and decreasing HDL, which is the exact opposite of what you want, if you want to protect against heart disease," says Nelson, a registered dietitian at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

"I think what's really significant about this study is that first, it was done on women, which increases our knowledge base about women and heart disease, and second, it offers us another way to improve our cholesterol profile, without having to use medication," Nelson adds.

While she says moderate alcohol intake doesn't preclude following a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise -- what she calls "the first line of defense" -- it can be something extra a woman can do to maintain good health.

Previous studies have shown alcohol, particularly red wine, may have antioxidant effects, which also help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Baer's study focused on 51 healthy women, all around 60 years old. No one had been taking hormone replacement therapy, and none had a personal or family history of alcohol abuse.

All of the women were randomly assigned to complete one of three eight-week dietary programs: a control diet with no alcohol; a diet that included one drink a day; and a third that contained two drinks a way.

All meals were prepared and eaten at the study center and the foods were what researchers called "a typical American diet," with respect to fat, fiber, protein, cholesterol and other nutrients.

Baseline blood samples to determine cholesterol levels were obtained at the start of the study, and once a week for the length of the programs. Doctors then compared the cholesterol and triacylglyceride levels before, during and after each phase of the study.

What they found: Compared with those who had no alcohol, the women who had one drink a day reduced their LDL cholesterol, on average, by about 4 milligrams, (from 133 mg to 129 mg); the average drop in triacylglycerides was approximately 8 mg (126 mg to 118 mg).

Adding a second glass of alcohol a day also boosted HDL cholesterol, on average, about 3 mg (54 mg to 57 mg).

According to the American Heart Association, the optimum level for LDL is below 100 mg, for HDL it is 60 mg or higher, and for triacylglycerides, 150 mg is considered normal.

The study projected that consuming one alcohol drink per day could decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women by up to 5 percent. Two drinks a day would cut the risks by as much as 13 percent.

What to Do: To learn more about cholesterol, check out The American Heart Association. Or you can stop by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, for the latest recommendations.

SOURCES: Interviews with David J. Baer, PhD, study author, research physiologist at the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center, Beltsville, Md.; Maudine Nelson, RD, registered dietitian, and nutritionist, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York City; Feb. 22, 2002, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
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