December 13, 2023 – You may have read articles about how a glass of red wine per day can improve heart health, or a study showing that light to moderate alcohol consumption in general is associated with a lower risk of heart and vascular problems. However, new research shows that the reality is much more complicated.
A research team investigated the effects of alcohol consumption on our metabolites – the small molecules that result from metabolic processes – and what the prevalence of certain metabolites means for the risk of cardiovascular disease. They found that the metabolic traces left by drinking are, in many cases, associated with a higher cardiovascular risk.
However, to further confuse this already confusing picture, the study researchers found that some metabolites they identified in the body as a result of alcohol consumption were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Cardiovascular diseases affect the structure or function of your heart and include arrhythmias, heart failure, artery narrowing, and heart attack.
The study results were recently published in BMC Medicine. The research team, led by biostatistics experts from the Boston University School of Public Health, used data from 2,428 individuals (all 18 years or older) who underwent multiple personal health examinations over the course of 20 years.
Studies on alcohol consumption and health risks are particularly difficult to conduct thoroughly, said Chunyu Liu, PhD, one of the lead authors of the study and a professor of biostatistics at BU School of Public Health, because there are not many randomized controlled trials in this area – the gold standard for research. Instead, drinking habits must be either observed or self-reported by the individuals studied, who may paint a more conservative picture of their alcohol consumption to their doctors. And when it comes to cardiovascular diseases, there are even more open questions.
„Your economic status, whether you eat something while drinking, the type of alcohol you drink, and how much – all of this has a significant impact on different molecules and biological processes,“ said Liu.
Despite the mixed messages of the study on alcohol consumption and cardiovascular diseases, Liu said that the scope of the literature sends a clear message: If you don’t drink, don’t start now. And if you do drink, limit it to a moderate amount.
Deepak Bhatt, MD, MPH, a top expert in cardiovascular health from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, has the same message for patients. He also hopes that people will not be misled by catchy headlines that sound promising for alcohol lovers who care about their health. „There is no doubt that alcohol is generally harmful to health,“ said Bhatt. „The real question is whether there is a ’sweet spot‘, say, where a glass of wine per day protects against heart disease, which is generally assumed by the media, patients, and even doctors – but the evidence for that is extremely weak.“