For many wine lovers, relaxation can often be found in a glass of good wine. And stress reduction is a matter of health: High stress levels can lead to adverse cardiovascular effects such as high blood pressure. A new study has found promising results for moderate alcohol consumption and reducing stress-related brain signals responsible for heart disease.
Lead author Dr. Kenechukwu Mezue presented his findings on May 17 at the American College of Cardiology’s 70th Annual Scientific Session & Expo (the study has not yet been published). In his research, Dr. Mezue and his cardiology team at Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed self-reported data from the Mass General Brigham Biobank survey. The survey included 53,000 participants, of which 60 percent were women and the average age was 57.
The survey classified subjects' alcohol intake into four categories: no intake, low intake (less than one drink per week), moderate (one to 14 drinks per week) and high (more than 14 drinks per week). Hospital records were checked to see which subjects had experienced adverse cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke. Of the 53,000 participants, nearly 8,000 had experienced a major adverse cardiovascular event during their lives.
Dr. Mezue and his team looked at areas of the brain with increased activity and measured stress-related brain activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear and stress by conducting PET (positron emission tomography) imaging scans on 752 survey participants.
"We measured activity in the amygdala region and controlled for it with measurements in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum," Dr. Mezue told Wine Spectator. "Previous studies from my mentor showed that increased levels of amygdala activation were associated with subsequent inflammation in the blood vessels and increased inflammation of arteries and, subsequently, increased number of cardiovascular events."
Dr. Mezue says that his results showed that those with no intake, low intake and high intake of alcohol showed higher levels of amygdala activity than subjects with moderate intake. Participants who reported moderate alcohol intake had a 20 percent lower chance of having an adverse event compared to the low intake group. Dr. Mezue also found that exercise and yoga correlated with lower levels of amygdala activity and adverse cardiovascular events.
The survey data did not specify types of alcoholic beverages, but Dr. Mezue does say there has been consistent data on wine's positive effects. He also says it's a limitation that the survey asked about alcoholic drinks per week, not per day. He points out that other studies have found binge drinking is potentially harmful. In the future, the researchers hope to conduct studies that look for more specifics on drinking patterns and distinguish wine from beer and spirits.
Dr. Mezue cautions that this study should not encourage people to start drinking if they don't already, but he says the results could open doors for therapeutics. "What we are seeing there is that there is a benefit for cardiovascular disease when drinking moderately," he said. "If we can influence the ability of the body to correct those changes in inflammation, we could potentially develop solutions that would have the same effects that alcohol has in relaxing signals of the brain, thereby reducing inflammation and, in essence, providing better health."
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