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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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. The study also found that any amount of alcohol consumption increases cancer risks, and 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.
Researchers hope to use their findings to look for other ways that could replicate alcohol’s protective effects without the detrimental effects.