Setting the Bar for Responsible Drinking

Commentary by Lyle MacWilliam, BSc, MSc, FP

Lyle MacWilliam is a founder of NutriSearch Corporation and author of the NutriSearch Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements

Thank goodness there is still some solid investigative journalism in this country.

Recently, the Globe and Mail published an editorial response to the release of the seriously flawed study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), which claimed “no level of alcohol consumption is safe.”

This opinion piece from the Globe’s Editorial Board punches some pretty big holes in the argument, peddled by the CCSA, that “all alcohol consumption is harmful”. The CCSA guidance is less than useful; it is unduly raising needless fear.

As an organization setting national recommendations for health guidance, the CCSA have been less than forthcoming about their evidence. The rebuttal by the Globe’s Editorial Board to the study’s “findings” is well researched and leaves much for sober second thought (oooh, was that a pun?); it also leaves one to ask, “at what level of alcohol intake does a person venture from benefit into the realm of harm?

Let us set all sociological arguments aside for a moment regarding the health and societal dangers of alcohol, which everyone should understand is an addictive toxin. The science is clear when it comes to the measurable physiological effects of toxins, such as alcohol, or even the skin of a lemon, on the body. In fact, the physiological response of the body to all stressors and toxins—including vigorous exercise—invokes a basic principle that has been known for centuries in natural medicine: all toxins act as hormetics, agents foreign to the body that induce a measured physiological response, the nature of which is entirely dose-dependent.

Hormesis is thus recognized as a biphasic dose-response relationship in the cells of the body that occurs when they are exposed to a toxin, be it a heavy metal, ionizing radiation, alcohol, or even the peel of an apple.  At a high dose, hormetic agents can produce a harmful biological effect ; however, at a lower dose, they can produce an opposite and biologically beneficial effect. In fact, modern research has shown that hormesis plays a vital role in increasing the body’s supply of endogenous antioxidants, DNA repair and protein-degrading enzymes that, in turn, decrease oxidative stress and its related disorders.

The phenomenon of hormesis has been recognized since antiquity: Mithridatism was a practice popularized by Mithridates VI of Pontus, ruler of the Greek Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia from 120 to 63 BC, and one of the Roman Republic 's most formidable and determined opponents. Mith (as he was known locally) supposedly made himself immune to a wide variety of toxins by regular exposure to small doses that would harm or even kill others suddenly exposed to a similar dose of the same poison.

While the concept languished for a few centuries after his death, it was revived by a 16th Century Swiss-German pharmacologist named Paracelsus who, like Mithradates, recognized that “all things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dosage makes a thing not poison.” Incidentally, Paracelsus lived in Einsiendeln, Switzerland, where his pharmacy from the 16th Century is still operating in the town square.

The German pharmacologist Hugo Schulz later described the phenomenon of hormesis scientifically in 1888, based on observations that small doses of poisons stimulated the growth of yeast cells that larger doses would kill. The hormetic dose-response curve Shulz observed was always biphasic in nature, showing a measured and reproducible stimulatory effect at low doses and an inhibitory/lethal effect at higher doses.

Here’s how hormesis works:

graph of the biphasic hormetic response to stressors showing the highest benefit followed by increased cell damage

So, the question of how much is too much, when it comes to alcohol consumption can only be answered conclusively based on where one finds him/herself within the biphasic dose curve for a given level of intake. Perhaps the question itself needs to be rephrased to ask, “how little do I require to solicit a reproducible and beneficial response.”

So, the next time you feel obliged to drain the bottle, just ask yourself this: “What’s my poison?”


Globe Editorial Board (2023-01-31), Setting the Bar for Responsible Drinking, Globe and Mail,

Leung, W (2023-01-17), Canada’s new alcohol guidelines advise fewer drinks, Globe and Mail

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