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Researchers find evidence that low-to-moderate drinking may help some people relieve stress. Halfpoint Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers find moderate drinking may help relieve stress.
  • Study could explain past research finding better health outcomes for light-to-moderate drinkers.
  • Researchers examined data on more than 50,000 people enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank.

Light to moderate alcohol consumption may lower the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke by reducing activity in parts of the brain that respond to stress, new research claims.

But researchers caution that alcohol also carries health risks.

“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,” study author Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a cardiologist and co-director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in a news release.

Instead, researchers wanted to understand how light to moderate alcohol consumption (one to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women) reduces cardiovascular disease, as seen in other research.

“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,” said Tawakol.

In this observational study, researchers examined data on more than 50,000 people enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank.

People filled out a survey at the time of enrollment, which included a question about their alcohol consumption during the prior year.

Researchers obtained information from participants’ medical records about any major cardiovascular events they experienced during the study period. This included heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and heart failure.

They found that light-to-moderate drinkers had a lower risk of major cardiovascular events, taking into account genetic, clinical, lifestyle and socioeconomic factors.

Next, researchers studied a subset of around 750 people who had previously undergone brain imaging for clinical reasons not related to the study.

Light to moderate drinkers had lower activity in the amygdala — a region of the brain involved in stress signaling — compared to people who drank little to no alcohol.

People with lower stress signals in the amygdala also had fewer major cardiovascular events, the results showed.

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

The results were published June 12 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Other research has found that alcohol reduces how reactive the amygdala is to threatening stimuli, such as fearful and angry faces.

The new study, though, is the first to show that this dampening of activity in the amygdala in response to alcohol may have positive impacts on the cardiovascular system, the researchers said.

“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,” said Tawakol.

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

Researchers also found that within the entire group of participants, light to moderate drinking was linked to greater decreases in major cardiovascular events for people with a history of anxiety, compared to others.

Although light to moderate drinkers saw a decrease in their risk for cardiovascular disease, they also had a higher risk of cancer.

In addition, drinking higher amounts of alcohol — more than 14 drinks a week — was associated with decreased overall brain activity, which the researchers said may be linked to adverse cognitive health.

Other research has shown that heavy or binge drinking can have negative effects on health, such as increasing the risk of dying from any cause and from cancer specifically.

The authors of the study conclude that the results could point the way toward new interventions that reduce stress signals in the brain, without the negative effects of alcohol.

The researchers are currently studying whether exercise, stress-reduction therapies such as meditation, and medications can dampen these stress-related signals and possibly lead to cardiovascular benefits.

Gregory Jantz, PhD, founder of The Center, A Place of Hope in Edmonds, Wash., a facility for the treatment of depression, said chronic stress became a problem for millions of Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America 2022” survey, nearly a quarter of people said that most days they are so stressed they can’t function.

Worldwide, the pandemic triggered a 25% rise in depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization.

Jantz, author of “The Anxiety Reset: A Life-Changing Approach to Overcoming Fear, Stress, Worry, Panic Attacks, OCD and More,” said even today, anxiety remains a huge problem in the United States, with some concerning effects.

“What we have found is people have been turning to alcohol, to cannabis and to food. We’ve also seen a huge increase in addictions and addictive behavior,” he said.

While some people may drink alcohol to de-stress — to “take the edge off” — Jantz said when you are stressed, it is difficult to have just one drink.

Instead, he suggests making a few lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, drinking water instead of alcohol (or sugary drinks), and adding more movement to your day.

“All those are really simple, healthy things to do,” he said. “But they’re things that during the pandemic, people stopped doing.”

In addition, Jantz said it can be helpful to identify triggers for anxiety in your life, such as social media or the 24/7 news cycle.

If these are causing you stress, “you’ve got to change your point of focus,” he said, in particular shifting your attention to healthy relationships with family and friends.

“We’ve got to have those positive people in our lives, despite what’s going on around us in the world,” he said. “I’m not saying ignore the stressful things, but they cannot be your point of focus.”

If you continue to experience anxiety that impacts your daily activities, or is becoming worse, seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.