Alcohol’s novel health benefits trace back to the 7th millennium B.C. when ancient physician Hippocrates used alcohol with herb as an antiseptic, and now it’s showing promise for heart disease. Austrian and Swedish researchers published two large studies that reveal any type of alcohol yields heart-healthy benefits in the journal Circulation.
“There is now solid evidence that alcohol, when consumed on a regular basis and at low volumes (up to one drink for women and two drinks for men daily), confers protection against cardiovascular disease, whereas regular amounts of more than four to five drinks daily and heavy episodic drinking have (the) opposite effects,” wrote Dr. Stefan Kiechl and Dr. Johann Willeit, neurologists at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria, in an editorial in Circulation.
Both studies found moderation is key and the cardiovascular benefits can only come from limited intake of a steady one glass for women and two glasses for men a day. The study from Sweden looked at 70,000 men and women for the effects alcohol has on the heart in relation to abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), which is a ballooning of the heart’s main blood vessel that delivers blood to the bottom half of the body.
“There is little doubt that heavy drinking should be avoided,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Darryl P. Leong of the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences in Canada. “We do not know at an individual level if there is a ‘safe’ threshold of alcohol use; this will need further study.”
AAA mostly affects men over the age of 60, and those who smoke or have high blood pressure are at a higher, life-threatening risk than others. Every year, 10,597 Americans die from AAA and contribute to an addition 17,215 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There have been several postulated mechanisms by which low levels of alcohol use could protect against heart attack and by which heavy alcohol use could increase the risk of heart attack,” Leong said.
“The alcoholic component itself (ethanol) has previously been found to alter levels of fatty acids in the blood, while antioxidants found in fermented beverages like wine and beer have been connected to other favorable effects (e.g. decrease inflammation in the vessel walls),” said lead author Dr. Otto Stackelberg of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, in the NY Daily News.
The heart attack study also showed heart benefits from researchers who looked at data from 52 countries, including 12,000 cases of heart attacks and 15,500 people who did not have heart attacks. There was a 13 percent lower risk of heart attack in almost all regions for those who moderately drank alcohol, except for India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
“I would not advise anyone to start to drink alcohol if they have not been drinking before based on these findings,” Stackelberg said. “However, a low to moderate consumption does not seem to be harmful for most individuals so I would neither discourage those who like to take a glass of wine to dinner.”
The benefits disappeared for those who had more than four drinks per week. Those who had six or more drinks in the past 24 hours had a 40 percent increased risk of heart attack, especially for those who were over the age of 65. The findings caution the quantity of alcohol intake but recommend “low to moderate alcohol use.” The American Heart Association, like both studies, recommends no more than two daily glasses of alcohol for men and no more than one daily glass for women.
Kiechl S, Willeit J. The Complex Association Between Alcohol Consumption and Myocardial Infarction: Always Good for a New Paradox. Circulation. 2014.
Stackelberg O, Wolk A, Larsson SC, et al. Alcohol Consumption, Specific Alcoholic Beverages, and Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. Circulation. 2014.