Dec. 13, 2023 – You may have read articles about how a glass of red wine a day can improve heart health, or a study that showed how light to moderate drinking, in general, is linked to a lower risk of heart and blood vessel problems. The reality, however, is much more complicated, new research suggests.
A team of researchers studied the impact that alcohol consumption has on our metabolites – the small molecules produced through metabolic processes – and what the prevalence of certain metabolites means for the risk of cardiovascular disease. They found that the metabolic traces left behind by drinking are, in many cases, linked with higher cardiovascular risks. Yet, to add to the already confusing picture, study investigators found that some metabolites they identified in the body from alcohol use were linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular diseases affect the structures or function of your heart and include abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, narrowing of the arteries, and heart attack.
The study findings were recently published in BMC Medicine. The team of investigators, led by biostatistics experts from Boston University’s School of Public Health, used data from 2,428 people (all 18 or older) who had multiple in-person health examinations over the course of 20 years.
Studies about drinking and health risks are especially difficult to conduct thoroughly, said Chunyu Liu, PhD, one of the study’s lead authors and a biostatistics professor at the BU School of Public Health, because there aren’t many randomized controlled trials in this area – the gold standard for research. Instead, drinking habits must either be observed or self-reported by the people being studied, who might paint a more conservative picture of their alcohol use to their doctors. And with cardiovascular disease, there are even more open questions.
“Your economic status, if you eat food while drinking alcohol, the kind of alcohol you drink and how much – all of this has very [mixed] effects on different molecules and biological processes,” Liu said.
She said that despite the study’s own mixed messages about alcohol use and cardiovascular disease, the scope of the literature sends a clear message: If you don’t drink, don’t start now. And if you do drink, keep it to moderate levels.
Deepak Bhatt, MD, MPH, a top cardiovascular health expert from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, has the same message for patients. He also hopes that people do not become misled by catchy headlines that sound promising for alcohol enthusiasts curious about their health.
“There’s no question that alcohol is bad for health in general,” Bhatt said. “The real question is whether or not there’s a ‘sweet spot,’ say where a glass of wine a day is protective for heart disease, which is commonly believed by the media, patients, and even doctors – but the evidence for this is extremely weak.”