New research has revealed more about the link between light to moderate drinking and a lower risk of heart disease.

A study led by Massachusetts General Hospital found that drinking alcohol in moderate quantities is linked to reductions in stress signalling in the brain. This effect on the brain’s stress systems seems to account for the lower rates in cardiovascular events in those study participants who drink moderate amounts of alcohol.

Senior author and cardiologist Ahmed Tawakol said: “We are not advocating the use of alcohol to reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes because of other concerning effects of alcohol on health.

“We wanted to understand how light to moderate drinking reduces cardiovascular disease, as demonstrated by multiple other studies. And if we could find the mechanism, the goal would be to find other approaches that could replicate or induce alcohol’s protective cardiac effects without the adverse impacts of alcohol.”

Previous research has linked light/moderate drinking (1 drink a day for women and 1 to 2 drinks a day for men) with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, it was not known if it was the alcohol that was bringing about the benefit, or whether the health lifestyles or socioeconomic status of these types of drinkers had a part to play instead, along with other factors.

The study looked at the data from more than 50,000 people. Researchers also examined data from 754 people who had undergone brain scans to look at the impact of light/moderate drinking on resting stress-related neural network activity.

Dr Tawakol said: “We found that the brain changes in light to moderate drinkers explained a significant portion of the protective cardiac effects.”

Analysis of the brain scans showed lowered stress signalling in the amygdala, the area of the brain linked to stress responses, in those who are light/moderate drinkers, compared to those who don’t drink at all or who drink a very small amount.

Dr Tawakol explained: “When the amygdala is too alert and vigilant, the sympathetic nervous system is heightened, which drives up blood pressure and increases heart rate, and triggers the release of inflammatory cells.

“If the stress is chronic, the result is hypertension, increased inflammation, and a substantial risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

The research team also investigated if the cardiovascular benefits of light/moderate drinking would be heightened in people with a history of severe anxiety. Their results showed that this level of alcohol consumption was linked to a protective effect that was almost double in people with a history of anxiety

Crucially, however, the study found that any amount of alcohol raises the risk of cancer. In addition, more than 14 drinks a week was linked to an increase in heart attack risk and decreasing brain activity.

The study authors concluded by saying that future research should look at interventions that lesson the stress activity in the brain without the damaging effects of alcohol.

Read the study in Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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