Alcohol

Alcohol beverages play such an important part in human culinary and nutrition history that they have their very own chapter earlier in this book. Simply listing alcohol's natural properties tells you right off why ancient peoples called it a "gift of the gods" or the "water of life." It's an effective antiseptic, sedative, and analgesic.

Moderate alcohol consumption relaxes muscles and mood, expands blood vessels to lower blood pressure temporarily, and appears to lower the risk of heart disease, either by reducing the stickiness of blood platelets (small particles that can clump together to form a blood clot) or by relaxing blood vessels (making them temporarily larger) or by increasing the amount of HDLs ("good cholesterol") in your blood. Although some forms of alcohol, such as red wines, have gotten more press attention with regard to these effects, the truth is that controlled studies show similar effects with all forms of alcohol beverages — wine, beer, and spirits.

Common wisdom to the contrary, alcohol sometimes may also be beneficial to the brain. Yes, drinking can make you fuzzy, which is why — really — you should never drink and drive. However, recent studies from the Institute of Preventive Medicine at Kommunehospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland hint that regular consumption of moderate amounts of wine may keep minds sharp into older age. (Check it out in Chapter 9.) Next time you lift a glass and say, "To your health," consider yourself right on the money.

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