June 13, 2023 – Researchers have discovered why light to moderate alcohol consumption may be linked to a lower risk of heart problems. Brain imaging revealed that the area of the brain associated with stress response was different in light to moderate drinkers, compared to people who drank very little or abstained.
Light to moderate drinking was defined as one drink per day for women, and one to two drinks per day for men. The risk of a major heart problem such as a heart attack was 22% lower among light to moderate drinkers, compared to people who rarely drank or abstained entirely.
“We found that the brain changes in light to moderate drinkers explained a significant portion of the protective cardiac effects,” researcher and Massachusetts General Hospital cardiologist Ahmed Tawakol, MD, said in a statement.
The findings were published in the latest edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. For the study, researchers analyzed health data for 53,064 people, looking for links between heart problems and alcohol consumption. The average age of the people studied was 60 years old, and 60% were women. The researchers also looked at brain imaging of 754 people to analyze brain differences based on their level of alcohol consumption.
The authors wrote that they chose to look at the area of the brain linked to stress because alcohol has been shown to reduce reactivity to “threatening stimuli” in the brain region called the amygdala, which is involved with emotions. Because the stress mechanism highlighted in their research is also known to be associated with anxiety, the researchers decided to analyze data for people with diagnosed anxiety disorders. They found that light to moderate drinkers who have anxiety had nearly twice the decreased risk of heart problems.
The researchers echoed recent health warnings that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe. For instance, light to moderate drinkers in the study had a 23% increased risk of cancer, compared to people who rarely or never drank alcohol. Rather, this latest study was intended to search for the mechanism in the body that was linked to earlier findings that consuming small amounts of alcohol reduced the risk of heart problems, they said.
In conclusion, the study authors wrote that “given alcohol’s potential health detriments, new interventions with similar effects on [stress signaling in the brain] are needed.”
Tawakol reiterated this, saying that with that mechanism now identified through this research, the next step is “to find other approaches that could replicate or induce alcohol’s protective cardiac effects without the adverse impacts of alcohol."