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Moderate Drinking May Protect Heart Health by Calming Stress Signals, Study Says

A woman slowly sips a glass of wine at a restaurant, surrounded by happy friends.
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images.

Key Takeaways

  • Brain scans show that stress signals are lowest among people who drink moderately, which may explain potential benefits of alcohol on heart health.
  • Despite the possible advantages of alcohol, heavy drinking still comes with risks to your physical and mental health.
  • Yoga, meditation, and exercise may ultimately be healthier ways to relax than drinking alcohol.

Do you wind down with your favorite tipple after the workday? While alcohol is often associated with negative health effects, moderate drinking may provide stress relief that can potentially benefit your heart health, according to new research.

The study, which will be presented at The American College of Cardiology's 70th Annual Scientific Session & Expo on May 17, evaluated data on more than 53,000 people and found that those who drank moderately experienced a lower risk of death from heat disease compared with teetotalers and heavy drinkers—results that are bolstered many earlier studies.

What’s new about this research is its findings on why alcohol may benefit the heart. When looking at brain imaging on a subset of participants, researchers found that moderate drinkers had the lowest levels of stress signals, which may explain the cardiovascular benefits. 

Despite the findings on the potential benefits of alcohol, experts say that drinking must be kept in moderation and that there are safer ways to get stress relief. Here’s why.

The Study

For the study, lead author Kenechukwu Mezue, MD, a fellow in nuclear cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a team of researchers looked at data on 53,064 people collected through the Mass General Brigham Biobank health care survey.

It asks people a variety of questions to help researchers learn about how their lifestyles (including their smoking and drinking habits), the environment, and their family health history may affect disease rates.

On average, participants were about 57 years old. Around 60% of the respondents were women. 

The researchers divided the participant base into three groups based on their alcohol consumption. The low-alcohol intake group included people who had less than one drink per week, moderate drinkers were between one and 14 drinks per week, and heavy drinkers consumed more than 14 drinks per week.

Then, the researchers looked at data on the 7,905 participants who had a major adverse cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke. Just 13% of people who drank moderately had a serious heart problem, compared with 17% in the low-alcohol group and 20% of heavy drinkers. 

To get a better understanding of why moderate drinkers had better heart health outcomes, the researchers also studied records on a subset of 752 participants who had undergone imaging that measured brain activity related to stress. The participants had no alcohol in the 12 hours prior to the imaging.

The scans showed that people who drank moderately had the lowest levels of stress-related brain activity, while excessive drinkers had the highest levels, and non-drinkers fell somewhere in the middle. The study authors say this is the first study that has discovered that moderate drinking may protect the heart, at least in part, by curbing that stress activity in the brain.

Jim Liu, MD

Previously, it was thought that benefits from alcohol were possibly related to antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects, so this study shows evidence of a possible new mechanism.

— Jim Liu, MD

“Previously, it was thought that benefits from alcohol were possibly related to antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects, so this study shows evidence of a possible new mechanism,” explains Jim Liu, MD, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

However, it’s important to note that “correlation does not equal causation,” says Daniel Kiss, MD, a cardiologist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. In other words, there may be some other factor that’s helping to reduce stress-related signals in the brains of people who also happen to drink moderately, thus lowering heart disease rates. 

“It’s possible that it’s not the alcohol itself doing that, but the relaxation,” he says. “If you look at people who exercise or meditate or do yoga, do they potentially have the same type of benefit achieved through other means that people are inducing through alcohol?”

Still, the findings support the guidance Dr. Kiss gives patients: “It’s OK to have a glass of wine at night.”

Risks vs. Benefits of Drinking

While more research is needed on the exact mechanism, the association between better heart health outcomes and moderate drinking has been found in other studies, as well.

A 2019 review of the literature on this topic, which went back decades, concluded that “current evidence supports that low amounts of alcohol are safe and beneficial for the cardiovascular system.”

However, that doesn’t mean that drinking doesn’t present some potential dangers to your physical and mental health—especially if having one drink leads to many more.

Leonard Pianko, MD

The downside is that higher alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysms, heart failure, and death, in addition to liver damage, the risk of driving under the influence, and substance abuse.

— Leonard Pianko, MD

“The downside is that higher alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysms, heart failure, and death, in addition to liver damage, the risk of driving under the influence, and substance abuse,” warns Leonard Pianko, MD, a cardiologist in Aventura, Florida.

If you are going to drink, you can reduce the risks and maximize the potential benefits by limiting how much you consume. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men, or one drink per day for women per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

A drink is defined as: 

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% ABV)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% ABV)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% ABV)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (40% ABV)

“Alcohol, like any other drug or medication, can be useful under the right circumstances and with the right dosing,” says Athol Morgan, MD, a cardiologist at LifeBridge Health. “But it’s clear that in other settings or at higher doses, it can be dangerous, and people need to approach it with that kind of thinking.”

Other Ways to Reduce Stress Levels

Stress management is an important key to heart health. While the latest research does show a connection between moderate alcohol consumption and benefits to the brain-heart connection, there are other ways to reduce stress that don’t put you at risk of a hangover. 

“Obviously, being physical is a great way to reduce stress, as well as keep your body and mind healthy. It doesn’t have to be strenuous—it can be as simple as taking a walk around the neighborhood or in the woods,” says Dr. Liu. 

Dr. Pianko also recommends trying yoga, meditation, or taking a hot bath.

“Even laughter can reduce your stress hormones,” he adds.

And if having an occasional drink helps you get into relaxation mode, that’s probably fine too—just keep it in moderation, says Dr. Kiss.

“This study confirms much of what we suspect—that it’s reasonable to have a glass of wine at night for cardiovascular health,” he says. “But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and I’d caution against overindulging.” 

What This Means For You

Research has shown that the occasional glass of wine can benefit your heart health. Now, scientists have a better idea of why that’s the case. Brain scans show that moderate drinkers tend to have lower stress-related activity than teetotalers and heavy drinkers, which may help the heart.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should rely on alcohol as your sole source of stress relief, though. Yoga, exercise, meditation, and even a hot bath can also help you feel more relaxed. Still, doctors say it’s probably OK (and maybe even beneficial) to enjoy your favorite tipple at the end of the day—just keep it within the guidelines for moderate drinking. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Alcohol in moderation may help the heart by calming stress signals in the brain. American College of Cardiology. Published May 6, 2021.

  2. Chiva-Blanch G, Badimon L. Benefits and risks of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease: current findings and controversies. Nutrients. 2019;12(1). doi: 10.3390/nu12010108

  3. Dietary guidelines for alcohol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last updated December 29, 2020.