New Research on Alcohol and Heart Health 🍶
The question of whether alcohol consumption is good for us has been a subject of intense debate for decades.
The problems of excessive drinking are well-established and unambiguous. However, countless long-term observational trials have found that so-called moderate drinking (usually defined as 1-2 units of alcohol per day) is linked to greater health and longevity compared to heavy drinking as well as not drinking at all, suggesting that small amounts of alcohol may actually be beneficial. But this is likely explained, at least in part, by other risk factors carried by individuals who abstain from alcohol, so it’s sort of hard to know how to interpret these findings (check out this blog from a few years ago to learn more).
Two new studies, which I’d like to share today, shed a little more light on this topic. One found that wine consumption, specifically, is linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality, and another found that much of the cardiovascular benefit associated with alcohol consumption may be driven indirectly by dampening stress signals from the brain. Scroll down to get the details 👀
This Week’s Research Highlights
The relationship between alcohol and health is super complicated. One finding that emerges repeatedly in the literature is that certain forms of alcohol seem to be more beneficial (or less harmful, depending on your point of view), and wine tends to appear at the top of this hierarchy. To elucidate this relationship, researchers in Spain and Latin America performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies examining wine consumption and cardiovascular events. A total of 25 observational studies were included, conducted in eight different countries and with a total of 1,443,245 subjects. The meta-analysis found that wine drinking was linked to a 24% reduction in risk of coronary heart disease, a 17% reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 27% reduction in risk of cardiovascular mortality. These associations were not affected by participants' age, duration of followup, smoking, or the percentage of female participants. But why? Well, this study wasn’t designed to answer that particular question. However, I think it is worth noting that wine is primarily distinguished from other alcoholic beverages by typical consumption patterns (people drink spirits very differently from wine, needless to say), and the presence of bioactive compounds like polyphenols, which also occur in whole grapes and grape juice. In other words, ethanol per se may not explain a lot of the health benefits that are attributed to wine.
🍷 The effect of alcohol on cardiovascular risk may be mediated by reduction in stress-related brain activity.
The mechanisms that tie moderate alcohol intake to lower adverse cardiovascular outcomes are not fully understood. To gain insight into how alcohol might influence cardiovascular health through effects on brain activity, a team of researchers affiliated with Yale, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed data from 53,064 older adults enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank who completed a health behavior survey that addressed drinking habits. A subset of participants (n=713) underwent PET scans of their brains, which enabled the researchers to assess and compare levels of stress-related neural network activity. After 3.4 years, they found that, compared to no or minimal alcohol consumption, light/moderate alcohol consumption (1-14 drinks per week) was associated with 22% lower risk of major adverse cardiovascular events. Importantly, this association between alcohol and cardiovascular events was much stronger in individuals who reported a history of anxiety; in these subjects, light/moderate alcohol consumption was linked to a 40% reduced risk of major cardiovascular events.
When the researchers examined the subset of participants who underwent brain imaging, they were able to see why this might be the case. Individuals in this group who were light/moderate drinkers tended to exhibit decreased stress signaling in the amygdala. When they analyzed the medical history of these subjects, they observed significantly fewer cardiovascular events, and this was partially mediated by lower reactivity of the amygdala. This makes a ton of sense. We know that chronic stress is strongly linked to greater risk of cardiovascular disease, and prior research using PET scans to capture regional brain activity have found that amygdalar activity independently and robustly predicts cardiovascular disease events. However, with respect to alcohol, the news here is not totally rosy. For one thing, the researchers also found that alcohol consumption - at any dose - was associated with greater risk of cancer. Furthermore, heavy drinking (meaning more than 14 drinks per week) was found to increase risk of cardiovascular events. Accordingly, the researchers conclude that we need to find interventions that reduce stress responses in the brain but that do not come with the detrimental effects that accompany alcohol consumption.
Random Trivia & Weird News
A fountain constructed on a vineyard in the Abruzzo region dispenses locally made wine, all day every day, for free.
You can find this fontana del vino at the Dora Sarchese Vineyard in the town of Caldari di Ortona, east of Rome.
It is open to the public, however the vineyard states explicitly that this fountain is not intended for “drunkards” or “louts,” so bear that in mind if you happen to visit!
Podcasts We Loved This Week
- Tom Foltynie: Pondering GLP-1 receptor agonists for Parkinson’s disease. Via Brain Ponderings Podcast.
- Benjamin Thompson & Shamini Bundell: Do octopuses dream? Neural activity resembles human sleep stages. Via The Nature Podcast.
Products We Are Enjoying
Competition kettlebells offer several major advantages over the typical cast iron kettlebells that you usually see in commercial gyms. For one thing, the handle is smaller and much smoother, which reduces grip fatigue and friction for the kinds of dynamic activities that you typically do with kettlebells. They’re also uniform in size regardless of mass, which helps a lot when practicing said movements and when you transition between different weights. Finally, they have a wide flat base, so they’re less likely to fall over if you are bracing yourself on them, like while doing planks. I’ve got a couple of these, and I am a huge fan. Definitely worth it if you train with kettlebells regularly.
humanOS Catalog Feature of the Week
This week, we'd like to highlight another lesson from our new-and-improved Mediterranean Diet course. As I touched on earlier, some of the cardiovascular benefits that we see in response to wine consumption are probably due to the high concentrations of polyphenols. In this short lesson, we dig a bit into the molecular mechanisms through which polyphenols in the diet can improve health. They are often characterized as antioxidants, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, since the way they work is a little different from typical dietary antioxidants (like vitamin C or vitamin E).
Incidentally, polyphenols are quite a heterogeneous category of plant chemicals, with different types exerting different effects in the body, and we’ve been working on databases to catalog these sorts of effects. If you’d like to get some personalized guidance on using phytochemicals to improve your health and meet your performance goals, please hit us up and let us know how we can help you.