Drinking alcohol in moderation ‘beneficially impacts the brain-heart connection’

WASHINGTON — For all the people who enjoy going to happy hour after work to “blow off some steam,” they may actually be on to something. A new study reveals drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can reduce stress-related signals which could cause heart disease. Researchers with the American College of Cardiology say this is the first report to link moderate drinking with heart health in this way.

“We found that stress-related activity in the brain was higher in non-drinkers when compared with people who drank moderately, while people who drank excessively (more than 14 drinks per week) had the highest level of stress-related brain activity,” says Dr. Kenechukwu Mezue, a fellow in nuclear cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a media release. “The thought is that 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.”

Specifically, study authors define moderate alcohol consumption as no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men. The team based their findings on health data from 53,064 participants in the Mass General Brigham Biobank health care survey.

Mezue cautions that the results aren’t exactly a “green light” to start drinking more alcohol. However, the study may open doors to other therapeutics which relieve stress signals in the brain, like exercise and yoga. In fact, the same team also discovered in another study that exercise has a very similar effect on brain activity.

Researchers say working out reduces stress signals which increase the risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack or stroke. Alcohol use, on the other hand, can come with several negative side-effects.

“The current study suggests that moderate alcohol intake beneficially impacts 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,” Mezue warns.

How does alcohol benefit the brain and heart?

Of the 53,064 participants in the study, researchers note just under 60 percent were women and the group had an average age of 57.2 years. In addition to standard health monitoring, 752 patients underwent 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography, or PET imaging. These scans are common in cancer screenings, but they can also reveal brain activity. This allowed the scientists to measure activity in regions that have a connection to stress.

In particular, researchers looked at brain activity in the amygdala, the brain region tied to fear and stress. They also divided these levels by the amount of activity in the frontal cortex, which controls a person’s executive functions — such as memory, thinking, and self-control.

Health records reveal 7,905 participants (15%) experienced a major cardiovascular event during the length of the survey. Of these patients, 17 percent fall into the low alcohol intake group — meaning they have less than one drink per week. Only 13 percent come from the moderate drinking group, who had between one and 14 drinks a week.

Results also reveal moderate drinkers have a 20-percent lower chance of a major cardiac event in comparison to low or non-drinkers. These participants also had lower stress-related brain activity according to the PET scans.

“Previous studies by our group and others have shown a robust association between heightened amygdalar 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 amygdalar activity,” Mezue explains.

Cheers to your health!

Study authors admit these findings do have some limitations. Those include relying on self-reported accounts of alcohol consumption by the participants and using only one brain scan on each volunteer.

Despite those drawbacks, this isn’t the first study to show a link between drinking and heart health. Previous reports show moderate drinking, such as a beer a day, can decrease the loss of “good” HDL cholesterol. For those who prefer wine, other reports show red wine may improve the diversity of gut microbiota.

The researchers are presenting their findings at the ACC’s 70th Annual Scientific Session.

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