A new study suggests that drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol may help reduce stress and support your heart. Lounge talks to doctors to find out
Alcohol is the only thing that divides opinion. Some believe that nothing good can come of it, while others give reasons why it’s not as bad as it seems. Now this heady cocktail is being concocted by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, whose new study suggests that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption could potentially reduce the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events and heart disease.
The study, Reduced stress-related neural network activity mediates the effect of alcohol on cardiovascular risk, states that alcohol can be beneficial in reducing stress. Cardiologists and others in the medical fraternity are treating this new information with a grain of salt, reminding everyone that despite this new information, all other health risks associated with alcohol still remain.
Dr. Nishith Chandra, senior director of interventional cardiology at the Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi, notes that alcohol is a psychoactive substance that affects the brain and body in a number of ways. Its effects may differ based on factors such as genetics, general health, and consumption patterns.
The other caveat with the new report, he says, is that the definition of “low and moderate” drinking can vary by country and by the organization that provides the guidelines. Dr Pravin Kahale, consultant cardiology at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai, says there are better ways to reduce stress than consuming alcohol. “When people who consume alcohol regularly cut back, it can increase their stress due to its potential for addiction and withdrawal symptoms. Your anxiety could increase and could lead to neurological and psychiatric disorders. Also, the same studies that found that low to moderate alcohol consumption can reduce heart disease, but can increase cancers,” he says. In addition, there are multiple studies that show the damage that alcohol causes in the brain, liver and heart.
According to India’s latest National Family Health Survey-5, 18.7% of men and 1.3% of women aged 15 and over drink. The consumption of alcoholic beverages is increasing in the country due to multiple factors, including higher incomes and increasing urbanization. In the national context, people should be very careful when resorting to alcohol to combat stress and the risk of heart disease. After all, alcohol consumption means higher caloric intake, and since we’re currently facing a global epidemic of diabetes caused by caloric excess, alcohol is likely fueling this problem, Kahale says.
The burden of diabetes in India is close to a health crisis with approximately 100 million Indians suffering from the disease. Another 30-40 million are living with prediabetes, and an estimated two to three in 10 Indians are diabetic, says Dr. Archana Juneja, a consultant endocrinologist at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai.
Health professionals in India often have different definitions for light to moderate alcohol consumption. For Chandra, consuming a small amount of alcohol once in a while qualifies as light drinking. “It involves drinking within the recommended limits or staying below the legal limit for driving. Moderate drinking generally refers to consuming alcohol in amounts that do not exceed recommended limits. Guidelines often define moderate consumption as no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women,” she says.
However, for Kahale, “Low to moderate alcohol consumption would be one pin a day, which is probably 30ml, or two pins every other day, or 5-6 pins a week.” The volume of a unit of alcohol can vary by country, but there are approximate values for beer, wine and spirits. For example, the standard unit in England is 25 ml of alcohol, while in India it is 30 ml.
In the Indian context, a unit is considered to be about 330 ml of regular beer, which typically has an alcohol content of around 5%; a unit of wine is usually about 100 ml with an alcohol content of about 12%; a unit of spirits such as whiskey, vodka or rum are about 30 ml and have an alcohol content of about 40%. The effects of alcohol can be influenced by several factors, including individual tolerance, general health, and the presence of other medications or substances in the body, health experts say.
The risks of alcohol use include neuropsychiatric disorders, liver disorders, heart disorders, gastric ulcers, reflux esophagitis, and increased blood pressure, Kahale says. “In addition, large amounts of alcohol can cause a heart attack, while in binge cases, intense vomiting can rupture the feeding tube,” she adds. Rather than relying on low-to-moderate alcohol consumption to reduce stress and heart disease risk, it’s wiser to adopt a better lifestyle that includes exercise, focusing on mental well-being, and eating healthier foods.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Waya book on functional fitness.