Light to moderate drinking reduces stress and lowers heart attack risk, cardiology study shows

Jun 14, 2023 | 9 comments

By Brooke Steinberg

Here’s to heart health — and a much-deserved moment to unwind.

A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology revealed that light to moderate alcohol consumption can lead to a long-term reduction in the brain’s stress activity, ultimately lowering the risk of heart disease.

Researchers found that one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men is linked with reductions in stress signaling in the brain.

Scientists looked at data from over 50,000 individuals enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank to understand exactly how and why previous studies have pointed toward a lower risk of cardiovascular disease for light to moderate drinkers.

Researchers found that one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men is linked with reductions in stress signaling in the brain. (Getty Images)

After adjusting for genetic, clinical, lifestyle and socioeconomic factors, they were able to find a lower risk of cardiovascular disease events for light to moderate alcohol consumption.

Researchers then looked at a subset of 754 people that have previously undergone brain imaging to determine the effects of alcohol consumption on resting, stress-related neural network activity.

“We found that the brain changes in light to moderate drinkers explained a significant portion of the protective cardiac effects,” cardiologist Ahmed Tawakol, lead author of the study by investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a press release.

Compared to those who drank little or completely abstained from alcohol, imaging for those who drank lightly to moderately showed reduced stress signaling in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the stress response.

Researchers found that roughly one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men is linked with reductions in stress signaling in the brain. “When the amygdala is too alert and vigilant, the sympathetic nervous system is heightened, which drives up blood pressure and increases heart rate, and triggers the release of inflammatory cells,” Tawakol said.

“If the stress is chronic, the result is hypertension, increased inflammation, and a substantial risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” he added.

While it’s already known that the amygdala’s reaction to threatening stimuli is reduced with alcohol, this is the first study to prove the long-term neurobiological effects of decreasing activity, which could have a big impact on the cardiovascular system.

Compared to those who drank little or completely abstained from alcohol, imaging for those who drank lightly to moderately showed reduced stress signaling in the amygdala.

Researchers also found that those with a history of anxiety had nearly double the cardiac-protective effect with light to moderate drinking.

However, cardiologists warn that the dangers associated with alcohol consumption cannot be ignored and that consumption of higher amounts — more than 14 drinks per week — can lead to an increased risk of heart attacks as well as a decline in overall brain activity.

“We are not advocating the use of alcohol to reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes because of other concerning effects of alcohol on health,” Tawakol said.

What about other recent studies that concluded drinking any amount of alcohol will adversely affect your health and shorten your life? While not discounting the dangers of drinking, research consultant Ellis Webb suspects some studies reflect a kind of “scientific puritanism” and do not present a balanced picture. “My graduate students at Columbia crunched the longevity numbers from two studies in the UK and one in the U.S. and determined that drinking one to two drinks a day shortens the average man’s lifespan by two days and 14 hours — hardly a terrifying prospect for most people who enjoy an occasional drink.”

Like Tawakol, Webb is not pushing alcohol consumption as a health strategy. “I certainly do not suggest a non-drinker should take up the habit since there are many more healthy ways to reduce stress and heart attack risk. Meditation and eating a vegetarian diet come to mind. On the other hand, we need to be realistic about how most people live and provide accurate information.”

Researchers hope to use their findings to look for other ways that could replicate alcohol’s protective effects without the detrimental effects.
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Sources: New York Post, Your Health Today

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