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New research suggests moderate drinking may reduce your risk of death from heart disease by lowering stress, but experts say the negative effects alcohol can have on your health outweigh any potential benefits. GEN UMEKITA/Getty Images
  • A new study has found that moderate drinking is linked to a lower risk of death from heart disease.
  • It’s believed that this is due to its ability to reduce stress signals in the brain.
  • However, experts say they do not recommend alcohol consumption as a way to reduce heart disease risk.
  • Alcohol is associated with other health problems, including cancer, high blood pressure, and substance use disorder.
  • Lifestyle changes, such as improved diet, sleep, and exercise, are better and safer ways to reduce your risk.

A new study that is being presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 70th Annual Scientific Session indicates that moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Moderate alcohol consumption was defined as no more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women. For men, it equaled to two drinks per day.

This was compared with people who either did not drink alcohol or who drank excessively.

This study is the first to show a benefit to the heart through stress reduction from moderate drinking.

The researchers used data from the Mass General Brigham Biobank healthcare survey to conduct their study.

Altogether, there were 53,064 participants in the study with an average age of 57.2 years.

Participants were divided into low, moderate, and high alcohol consumption groups based on their self-reported usage.

Major cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke were determined using diagnostic codes.

PET (position emission tomography) imaging was used to look at brain activity in regions of the brain associated with stress.

When they analyzed the data, they found that people who reported moderate alcohol use had a 20 percent lower chance of having a major cardiovascular event, compared with those with low alcohol intake.

They also had lower stress-related brain activity.

One reason it may be helpful, according to the study authors, is that it can reduce stress-related brain signals.

When they did brain imaging studies, they found that stress-related activity was higher in the brains of those who completely abstained from alcohol use, and, higher still in the brains of heavy drinkers.

Low consumption was considered to be less than one alcoholic drink per week. Those who consumed more than 14 drinks weekly were considered to be heavy drinkers.

Lead author Dr. Kenechukwu Mezue, a fellow in nuclear cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that the thinking is that moderate amounts of alcohol can help with relaxation and stress reduction, which, in turn, might somehow reduce the occurrence of cardiovascular disease.

While the study’s findings suggest that moderate alcohol use may help heart health by improving stress, Mezue urges caution in regards to using it for this purpose.

“Our study does not intend to encourage alcohol use, as alcohol intake in excess is associated with a lot of harm; and, even moderate alcohol intake is associated with increased cancer risk and dependence,” said Mezue. “Excess alcohol is harmful to the heart, as it leads to heart failure (dilated cardiomyopathy) and atrial fibrillation.”

“However, we think that shining a light on this potential mechanism of reducing cardiovascular events can open doors to new therapeutics that can optimize stress reduction without the harmful effects of alcohol,” he added.

Dr. Eugene Yang, MS, FACC, a cardiologist and clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, agreed.

“I think the main concern is the risk of addiction associated with alcohol consumption. I would not advocate for patients to start consuming alcohol for the possible benefits associated with moderate consumption,” said Yang.

For those who already consume alcohol, Yang said he would advise them on moderate consumption.

He said people with a history of substance misuse, in particular, should not consume alcohol as a way to reduce their stress.

In addition to the potential for substance misuse, Yang added, alcohol is known to increase the risk for potentially dangerous arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, and elevated blood pressure.

“So those with a history of high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation should not be advised to consume alcohol merely for the potential benefit on reducing stress signals from the brain,” he said.

Finally, Yang noted the small size of the study, saying that it was too small a study for us to make recommendations on the basis of its findings.

It “does not prove that moderate alcohol consumption actually reduces stress leading to lower cardiac event rates,” he explained.

Rather than taking up drinking, Yang said there are better and safer ways to reduce your risk.

“People should continue to focus on things with proven benefits to lower risk of heart disease, including abstinence from tobacco use, engaging in regular exercise, optimizing weight, and eating a low-sodium, low-saturated-fat diet.”

Yang said that exercise is the most beneficial thing you can do to improve heart health.

“Doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly — such as brisk walking, biking, or swimming — is recommended,” he said.

“Eating a low-sodium, heart-healthy diet that includes a high amount of unsaturated fats — such as fish, avocados, and nuts — will also lower the risk of heart disease,” he added.

In addition to these measures, there are steps that you can take to reduce your stress levels too.

Yang suggests doing some sort of physical activity on a regular basis and getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.

Mezue said that yoga is a good type of physical activity to reduce stress.

In addition, meditation and therapy can help.