By John Salak –
The debate over the potential benefits of alcohol entered a new round recently when researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital reported that light to moderate drinking is associated with long-term reductions in the brain’s stress signaling, which slightly lowers the risk of heart disease.
The hospital’s study isn’t the first research to tie drinking to lowering the risk of heart disease and related fatalities. The Mayo Clinic reports that moderate consumption may also reduce the risk of ischemic stroke and diabetes. Massachusetts General, however, claims its research is the first to connect light to moderate drinking and a reduction in stress signaling.
“We are not advocating the use of alcohol to reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes because of other concerning effects of alcohol and heart health,” noted senior author and cardiologist Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, co-director of the hospital’s Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We wanted to understand how light to moderate drinking reduces cardiovascular disease, as demonstrated by multiple other studies. And if we could find the mechanism, the goal would be to find other approaches that could replicate or induce alcohol’s protective cardiac effects without the adverse impacts of alcohol.”
Previous studies have suggested one drink daily for women and two for men lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. It was unknown, however, whether alcohol was inducing cardiovascular benefits or whether light/moderate drinkers’ health behaviors, socioeconomic status or other factors protected their hearts.
The hospital’s research team worked to unravel this mystery by studying data from more than 50,000 individuals enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank. The study first evaluated the relationship between light/moderate alcohol consumption and significant adverse cardiovascular events after adjusting for a range of genetic, clinical, lifestyle, and socioeconomic confounders.
The data revealed that light/moderate alcohol consumption was linked to lower cardiovascular disease risk even after accounting for those other factors.
The group then studied about 750 individuals from this group who had undergone previous PET/CT brain imaging for cancer surveillance to determine the effect of resting stress-related neural network activity. Brain imaging showed reduced stress signaling among light to moderate drinkers compared to those who didn’t drink or only drank lightly. Investigators also then discovered fewer heart attacks and strokes among light to moderate drinkers.
“We found that the brain changes in light to moderate drinkers explained a significant portion of the protective cardiac effects,” Tawakol said.
Ultimately, the study is reportedly the first to indicate that light to moderate alcohol consumption has longer-term neurobiological effects in dampening activity in the amygdala, which may have a significant downstream impact on the cardiovascular system.
“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 explained. “If the stress is chronic, the result is hypertension, increased inflammation, and a substantial risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
The research also underscored drawbacks to any alcohol consumption. It increases the risk of cancer in any quantity Also, higher amounts of consumption—more than 14 drinks a week—heighten the risk of heart attacks while lowering overall brain activity, possibly contributing to a decline in cognitive health.
Given these and other risks, the study’s authors note their work should clear the way for additional research focusing on ways to reduce the brain’s stress activity without incorporating the harmful effects of alcohol. These options might include exercise, meditation and pharmacological therapies.