If there’s one thing to treat with caution, it’s health-related headlines. For as long as they’ve existed, headlines have frequently propagated pseudoscientific health claims around things like alcohol, chocolate, and smoking — but this is not one of them.
This week, The Washington Post put out a press release around a new medical article entitled Alcohol’s Beneficial Effect on Cardiovascular Disease is Partially Mediated Through Modulation of Stress-Associated Brain Activity. That is a bit of a mouthful, but fear not: we’ll unpack all of its details below.
The “Plain English” Summary
In the simplest terms, this new study shows that enjoying a very moderate amount of alcohol every day (up to one serving for women or up to two servings for men) could help shield your heart against major heart problems like cardiovascular disease.
The reason behind this is fairly predictable: stress is a killer, and alcohol helps people relax. The more research done on stress, the more harmful it turns out to be. There’s hardly a bodily function that stress doesn’t affect. It harms our sleep, mental health, any and all inflammation, our heart health, and just about everything else.
When we are stressed, certain brain regions become active, allowing doctors and scientists to observe stress in our brains. In this study, the researchers were able to analyze the brain scan data from over 50,000 adults. These adults ranged from non-drinkers to excessive drinkers. Information was also available on any heart problems they experienced.
In non-drinkers and excessive drinkers, stress-related brain activity was significantly higher than among those who drank moderately. Moderate drinkers also enjoyed a 13% lower likelihood of major cardiovascular events like strokes or heart attacks.
In this study, a standard drink was treated as a 1.5-oz shot of spirits, 5 oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer. Obviously, alcohol consumption carries its own set of serious risks — it can cause heart damage and can be detrimental to the brain, liver, and other parts of your body. It can also cause a greater risk of cancer and can lead to elevated blood pressure. Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, can be extraordinarily destructive and lead to a host of problems.
The point here is that this research should not be seen as a license to drink freely. Alcohol should not be used as a mechanism to fight stress — there are far healthier and more effective ways of doing so. Staying physically fit, practicing meditation and yoga, staying on a regular sleep schedule, and spending quality time with family and friends are all effective ways of fighting stress.
The point to be taken from this study is that healthily enjoying a moderate amount of alcohol on a regular basis is not necessarily a health risk. In fact, if combined with a healthy lifestyle, it could possibly even help protect you from heart problems.
The Nitty Gritty Details of the Study
Scientists are just beginning to understand how chronic stress affects the likelihood of major adverse cardiovascular events (MACE) like strokes and heart attacks. The researchers began their study with the hypothesis that a moderate amount of alcohol could help decrease the neural effects of stress, which could help reduce the likelihood of MACE.
The study, published in May 2021 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, used the health data of 50,559 people who ranged from low drinkers (<1 drink per week) to high drinkers (more than 14 drinks per week). Of these participants, 13.1% experienced a MACE in the study period.
Those who drank alcohol were significantly less likely to experience a MACE than low or high drinkers. The mechanism behind this is that alcohol reduced neurobiological activity related to stress.
Summary: As Always, Enjoy Alcohol Responsibly
The conclusion here is that alcohol, when enjoyed moderately and responsibly and combined with a healthy lifestyle, may actually be good for your heart. It will be exciting to watch what else scientists uncover about the moderate intake of alcohol — it seems its storied ability to “soothe what ails ya” may not be so far from the truth.