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A recent study has found that moderate and heavy drinkers were both likely to live longer than abstainers. Rather than looking at the chemical composition of various alcoholic drinks the author suggests a less reductionist hypothesis. Its worth quoting the article here:
"...Let's think, for a moment, about the cultural history of drinking. The first reason people consume booze is to relax, taking advantage of its anxiolytic properties. This is the proverbial drink after work – after a eight hours of toil, there's something deeply soothing about a dose of alcohol, which quiets the brain by up-regulating our GABA receptors. (But don't get carried away: While the moderate consumption of alcohol might reduce the stress response, blood alcohol levels above 0.1 percent - most states consider 0.08 the legal limit for driving - trigger a large release of stress hormones. Although you might feel drunkenly relaxed, your body is convinced it's in a state of mortal danger.) And so the stresses of the day seem to fade away – we are given a temporary respite from the recursive complaints of self-consciousness. Since chronic stress is really, really bad for us, finding a substance that can reliably interrupt the stress loop might have medical benefits.
But drinking isn't just about de-stressing. In fact, the cultural traditions surrounding alcohol tend to emphasize a second, and perhaps even more important, function: socializing. For as long people have been fermenting things, they've been transforming the yeasty run-off into excuses for big parties. From Babylonian harvest festivals to the bacchanalias of Ancient Greece, alcohol has always been entangled with our get togethers. This is for obvious reasons: Alcohol is a delightful social lubricant, a liquid drug that is particularly good at erasing our inter-personal anxieties. And this might help explain why, according to the new study, moderate drinkers have more friends and higher quality "friend support" than abstainers. They're also more likely to be married..."
Hence the health benefits of alcohol are as much or more to do with the social relationship building and interactions around alcohol than its chemical properties. As the author states at the end of his article this of course does not mean that alcohol does not have " negative, frequently devastating, consequences" and there are other ways of gaining the health benefits but without drinking alcohol.
Source: Why Alcohol Is Good For You, Jonah Lehrer, Gizmodo 8th Sep 2010