Monday, June 13, 2011

Alcohol intake increases LDL cholesterol, in some people

Occasionally I get emails from people experiencing odd fluctuations in health markers, and trying to figure out what is causing those fluctuations. Spikes in LDL cholesterol without any change in diet seem to be a common occurrence, especially in men.

LDL cholesterol is a reflection of many things. It is one of the least useful measures in standard lipid profiles, as a predictor of future health problems. Nevertheless, if one’s diet is not changing, whether it is high or low in fat, significant fluctuations in LDL cholesterol may signal a change in inflammatory status. Generally speaking, the more systemic inflammation, the higher is the measured LDL cholesterol.

Corella and colleagues (2001) looked into alcohol consumption and its effect on LDL cholesterol, as part of the Framingham Offspring Study. They split the data into three genotypes, which are allele combinations. Alleles are genes variations; that is, they are variations in the sections of DNA that have been identified as coding for observable traits. The table below summarizes what they have found. Take a look at the last two columns on the right.

As you can see, for men with the E2 genotype, alcohol consumption significantly decreases LDL cholesterol. For men with the E4 genotype, alcohol consumption significantly increases LDL cholesterol. No significant effects were observed in women. The figure below illustrates the magnitude of the effects observed in men.

On average, alcohol consumption was moderate, around 15 g per day, and did not vary significantly based on genotype. This is important. Otherwise one could argue that a particular genotype predisposed individuals to drink more, which would be a major confounder in this study. Other confounders were also ruled out through multivariate controls - e.g., fat and calorie intake, and smoking.

Alcohol consumption in moderation seems, on average, to be beneficial. But for some individuals, particularly men with a certain genotype, it may be advisable to completely abstain from alcohol consumption. Who are those folks? They are the ones for whom LDL cholesterol goes up significantly following moderate alcohol consumption.