How a Little Alcohol Might Help the Heart

FRIDAY, May 7, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- A bit of booze may help protect your heart by reducing stress-related brain activity, a new study suggests.

"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," said lead author Dr. Kenechukwu Mezue, a nuclear cardiology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

His team analyzed data on more than 53,000 people in their late 50s, and more than 750 of them had brain scans to detect stress-related activity.

Overall, 15% of participants had a major heart event such as a stroke or heart attack. That included 17% of those with low self-reported alcohol consumption (one drink a week or fewer) and 13% of moderate drinkers (no more than one drink a day for women and two for men).

Compared to those with low alcohol intake, moderate drinkers had less stress-related brain activity and a 20% lower risk of a major heart event.

The authors said this is the first study to show that moderate alcohol consumption may help protect the heart, in part, by reducing stress-related brain signals.

They plan to present their findings May 17 at a virtual meeting of the American College of Cardiology (ACC). Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"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," Mezue said in an ACC news release.

He said these findings should not encourage alcohol use. They could, however, point the way to new drug treatments or prescriptions for stress-relieving activities like exercise or yoga to help minimize stress signals in the brain.

"The current study suggests that moderate alcohol intake beneficially impacts the brain-heart connection," Mezue said. "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."

A related study by the same team being presented at the ACC meeting found that exercise also reduces stress-related brain activity, along with lowering the heart risks.

The more exercise a person gets, the greater the reductions in stress-related brain activity, researchers said.

They noted that the connection between stress and heart disease is widely accepted, but relatively little research has examined how reducing stress may benefit heart health.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a guide to a healthy heart.

SOURCE: American College of Cardiology, news release, May 6, 2021

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