Moderate alcohol intake might be beneficial for the brain and body.
At the American College of Cardiology’s 70th Annual Scientific Session this month, Kenechukwu Mezue, MD, researcher, and a fellow in nuclear cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, will present the results of a study that suggested there is a connection between stress and heart disease, indicating there may be benefits for the body. However, Mezue contends, not much research has been conducted to examine how modifying stress may help protect the heart, and he found that moderate alcohol use may do just this.
Mezue and his team set out to investigate whether, as he said, “moderate amounts of alcohol may have effects on the brain that can help you relax, reduce stress levels and, perhaps through these mechanisms, lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease.” The team collected data from more than 53,000 participants with a mean age of 57 years – 60% were women who reported whether their weekly alcohol intake was “low (less than one glass), moderate (one to 14 glasses), or high (more than 14 drinks).”
After controlling for factors such as demographics and socioeconomic status, the team looked at the sample data to see how many survey respondents experienced heart complications, including a heart attack, stroke, or others that led to hospitalization. Approximately 8,000, or 15%, had. Then, taking another sample of this narrowed population (752 participants), the team examined amygdala activity in the brain against the frontal lobe. After giving participants CT scans, they divided them into groups based on neurobiological stress signaling.
“Previous studies by our group and others have shown a robust association between heightened amygdala activity and a higher risk of major adverse cardiovascular outcomes, such as heart attack, stroke or death. In the current study, path analyses showed that the link between moderate alcohol intake and lowered cardiovascular event risk is significantly mediated though reductions in amygdala activity,” Mezue said. He added, the team “found that “stress-related activity in the brain was higher in non-drinkers when compared with people who drank moderately,” and that “the link between moderate alcohol intake and lowered cardiovascular event risk is significantly mediated though reductions in amygdala activity.” This suggests that moderate alcohol intake has a calming, and not necessarily harmful, effect on the brain.
Mezue explained, “The current study suggests that moderate alcohol intake benefits the brain-heart connection. However, alcohol has several important side effects, including an increased risk of cancer, liver damage and dependence, so other interventions with better side effect profiles that beneficially impact brain-heart pathways are needed.”
Of course, drinking heavily does not come with the same benefits and had detrimental effects. The team found that “drinkers of more than 14 drinks per week had the highest level of stress-related brain activity,” Mezue said. He noted that there are self-care alternatives to that can produce the same results, saying, “other activities, like yoga and exercise, can have a similarly healthy de-stressing effect.”
In a related study by the same team, which will also be presented, exercise was found to positively effect on brain activity as well as improve heart health. The authors said, “Exercise is associated with decreased stress-associated brain activity in a dose-dependent manner.” This is, perhaps, the best way to calm the mind and body.