Light to moderate drinking can help relieve stress, help your heart

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Researchers find evidence that low to moderate drinking may help some people relieve stress. Half Stitch Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers find that moderate drinking can help relieve stress.
  • The study could explain past research that found better health outcomes for light to moderate drinkers.
  • The researchers looked at data from more than 50,000 people enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank.

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

But researchers warn that alcohol also carries health risks.

We are not advocating the use of alcohol to reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes, due to other concerning health effects of alcohol, study author Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, cardiologist and co-director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital of Boston, said in a news release.

Instead, the researchers wanted to understand how light to moderate alcohol consumption (one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per 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 the heart-protective effects of alcohol without alcohol’s negative impacts, Tawakol said.

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

People filled out a survey upon enrollment, which included a question about their alcohol consumption during the previous year.

The researchers obtained information from the 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, the researchers studied a subset of about 750 people who had previously undergone brain imaging for clinical reasons unrelated to the study.

Light to moderate drinkers had less activity in the amygdala, a brain region involved in stress signaling than people who drank little or no alcohol.

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

We found that brain changes in light-to-moderate drinkers explain a significant portion of the heart-protective effects, Tawakol said.

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

Other research has found that alcohol reduces the amygdala’s responsiveness to threatening stimuli, such as scared and angry faces.

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

When the amygdala is too alert and alert, the sympathetic nervous system is heightened, which raises blood pressure and increases the heart rate and triggers the release of inflammatory cells, Tawakol said.

If stress is chronic, the result is high blood pressure, increased inflammation and a substantial risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, he added.

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

Although light to moderate drinkers saw a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, they also had a higher risk of cancer.

Additionally, drinking larger amounts of alcohol more than 14 glasses per week was associated with a decrease in overall brain activity, which researchers say may be linked to adverse cognitive health.

Other research has shown that excessive or heavy drinking can have adverse health effects, such as increasing the risk of death from any cause and especially from cancer.

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

Researchers are currently investigating whether exercise, stress-reducing 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, Washington, a depression treatment facility, said chronic stress has become a problem for millions of Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Worldwide, the pandemic has triggered a 25 percent increase 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 that even today, anxiety remains a huge problem in the United States, with some troubling effects.

What we’ve found is that people have turned to alcohol, cannabis, and food. We’ve also seen a huge increase in addictions and addictive behaviors, she said.

While some people may drink stress-reducing alcohol to relieve stress, Jantz said that when you’re stressed, it’s hard to have just one drink.

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

All of those are really simple, healthy things to do, she said. But these are things that people stopped doing during the pandemic.

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

If these are causing you stress, you need to change your focus, she said, especially shifting your focus to healthy relationships with family and friends.

We have to have those positive people in our lives, despite what’s going on around us in the world, she said. I’m not saying ignore the stressful stuff, but they can’t be your focal point.

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

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