Moderate drinking’s brain-changing effects on the heart

Over the years there’s been a lot of research into the health benefits — and negative effects — of drinking alcohol in moderation.

It can certainly be confusing, but some reported benefits seem to stand, study after study. Take heart health for example…

Light-to-moderate drinking has long been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

But until now, the actual mechanism behind this protective effect was unclear.

Thanks to a large-scale research review, we now have some answers that can be applied to protecting the heart…

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Alcohol calms the amygdala

A study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and other major research hospitals involved more than 50,000 participants in the Mass General Brigham Biobank, a large research program designed to help researchers understand how people’s health is affected by their genes, lifestyle and environment.

The first part of the study evaluated the relationship between light/moderate alcohol consumption and major cardiovascular events. 

The researchers found that light/moderate alcohol consumption was associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease events, even after accounting for factors like lifestyle choices and socioeconomic status.

Next, the researchers studied a subset of 754 individuals who had undergone previous PET/CT brain scans to look for cancer. They were looking for the effect of light/moderate alcohol consumption on stress-related brain activity.

The amygdala is the brain region associated with processing emotions — including stress responses.

When they looked at those 754 brain scans, researchers saw less stress signaling in the amygdalas of individuals who were light-to-moderate drinkers than in those who drank less or not at all.

Then, when they looked at individual histories of cardiovascular events, they found fewer heart attacks and strokes in light-to-moderate drinkers.

“We found that the brain changes in light to moderate drinkers explained a significant portion of the protective cardiac effects,” says Dr. Ahmed Tawakol of Mass. General Hospital.

The emotional piece of the puzzle

“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,” explains Dr. Tawakol.

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

Previous studies have tied strong emotional responses, like anger, to an increased risk of heart attack.

The final step, then, was for the researchers to look at whether light-to-moderate drinking would be even more effective at preventing heart attacks and strokes in people with a history of anxiety, who are prone to a chronically higher stress response — or “hyper-vigilant amygdala.”

Within the 50,000 people studied, they found that light-to-moderate drinking was associated with nearly double the protective effect.

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Now the bad news

But there is a downside to these findings…

The researchers also found that any drinking, even light-to-moderate alcohol consumption — one drink a day for women and 1-2 a day for men — increases cancer risk.

And if moderate drinking goes too far and becomes heavy drinking — more than 14 drinks per week — the risk for heart attack starts to increase while overall brain activity starts to decrease, which may indicate an adverse effect on cognitive health.

That’s why the study authors are looking for interventions that can measurably reduce the brain’s stress activity without the negative effects of alcohol.

They’re currently studying the effects of exercise, meditation, and drug-related therapies on stress-related neural networks and their possible positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Risk-free ways to lower stress and protect your heart

Of course, you don’t have to wait to reap the benefits of exercise and meditation on your mental and emotional state.

As far as meditation goes, start small.

Tell yourself you’re only going to meditate for five or ten minutes. When time is up, if you feel like meditating longer, keep going. Otherwise, stop. Eventually, you’ll build up a tolerance for longer meditations.

And exercise… well, where do I begin? And if you’re a couch potato, where do you begin?

Same advice — start small. No marathons. Get out and go for a walk. Or try yoga which balances your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Find an exercise class for beginners.

Need more options? Consider volunteering to help others. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that when people helped others, activity in the amygdala decreased — which equated to decreased stress levels too.

Before long, you’ll be stress-free, and you’ll have done it all yourself!

Editor’s note: There are numerous safe and natural ways to decrease your risk of blood clots including the 25-cent vitamin, the nutrient that acts as a natural blood thinner and the powerful herb that helps clear plaque. To discover these and more, click here for Hushed Up Natural Heart Cures and Common Misconceptions of Popular Heart Treatments!


Researchers uncover why light-to-moderate drinking is tied to better heart health —  Science Daily

Reduced Stress-Related Neural Network Activity Mediates the Effect of Alcohol on Cardiovascular Risk — Journal of the American College of Cardiology

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.