Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 4, April 9 -15

About Alcohol  

My profession has always had a negative attitude toward alcohol. This is in some ways quite appropriate as alcohol abuse can lead to rather unattractive diseases. The social effects of this same abuse can be equally devastating. Alcohol is, for example, often a factor in spousal abuse. Given this background, it is not surprising that we have little to say in the defense of this substance. We may be wrong.

There is a little-known statistic - the French Paradox - that we find uncomfortable. In the southwestern corner of France, particularly in the Gironde, the people live to a ripe old age. This is in spite of the fact that the main fat used for cooking is goose grease which is heavily laden with all the saturated fats that you have been told to avoid. If you measure the cholesterol and lipids (fats) in these people’s blood, you will find that it is at frighteningly high levels. The people, however, refuse to die of the heart disease that you would expect with these statistics.

Many authorities have looked at this phenomena and have concluded it is partly because of the lack of stress in their lives, but perhaps more importantly because they consume local wine with each meal. It is claimed that the effect of the local red wine counteracts the damaging effects of the high-fat diet. This as you can imagine has had a positive effect on the sale of red wine from this region.

This should come as no surprise. It has been known for many years that alcohol is a vasodilator, that is it has the effect of opening up blood vessels and allowing a greater quantity of blood to run through them. Most old people know this. If they have a glass of brandy before they go to bed, it not only helps them to sleep but also keeps their feet warm at night.

In my area of medicine, obstetrics, I believe the fear of alcohol can cause more distress than justified. Pregnant women who are hard-line alcoholics have a very poor record. The rate of miscarriage and premature births is very high. In addition babies born to alcoholics can suffer from the 'Fetal Alcohol Syndrome’ - such children have facial deformities and learning and social problems as they grow up.

But women sometimes worry too much: a young woman with an exemplary lifestyle finds that she is pregnant and then remembers that she had a glass of wine at dinner one night in the last week. Total panic sets in and she rushes in to see me with big swollen eyes from crying herself to sleep the night before and asks me whether she should have an abortion. The answer to this question is a resounding NO. There is no evidence at all that this minimal exposure to alcohol has any effect on the pregnancy at all. A glass of wine on a weekend night is not the same as a liter of vodka a day. Interestingly, most women find the smell and taste of alcohol repellent during pregnancy and stop all drinking for this reason. I am a firm believer in listening to the signals from your own body. If a woman decides to give up all alcohol during pregnancy, just to be on the safe side, I think that this is wonderful and should be encouraged. But to get anxious about the occasional drink is neither necessary nor healthy.

Everybody knows the essential truth about alcohol. Moderate use is harmless and may in certain areas be helpful. Drinking to excess is dangerous and self-destructive. Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization that has done most to help people with a problem has an active branch in Beijing for those who need their help. AA’s contact numbers are available at expatriate-oriented medical centers and from most Western embassies.

This column was contributed by
Dr. Moreton, an Obstetrician and Gynecologist at Beijing United Family Hospital. Email your questions to Doctor Doctor at

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