Moderate Alcohol Consumption Helps Prevent Ischemic Heart Disease

A pint of beerPeople who consume two alcoholic drinks a day may be as much as 30% less likely to die from heart disease compared to non-drinkers according to a recent Danish study published in the European Heart Journal.

The study included 11,914 men and women from the Copenhagen Heart Study and spanned a period of almost 20 years. Researchers tracked participants leisure time, physical activity levels, and weekly consumption of alcohol in order to determine the effects of physical activity and exercise on ischemic heart disease.

16% of men and 17% of women in the study were classified as being physically inactive while 15% of men and 43% of women reported consumption of less than 1 alcoholic drink a week.

The researchers found that while moderate exercise reduced the likelihood of dying from heart disease, a combination of moderate alcohol drinking and regular exercise reduced the risk of heart disease more than was possible though exercise alone.

Participants who neither drank nor exercised regularly were around 30% more likely to die from ischemic heart disease as those who either consumed alcohol moderately or exercised regularly while those who both drank moderately and exercised regularly were around half as likely to die from ischemic heart disease as those who did neither.

The research suggested that alcohol consumption beyond 14 drinks a week has little further benefit on ischemic heart disease risk compared to light to moderate alcohol consumption and in fact increased heart disease risk slightly in physically active people. Likewise moderate to heavy levels of physical activity offered no further benefit over light exercise in reducing ischemic heart disease risk.

The main findings of the study are presented in the graph below.

Graph of the effects of alcohol and exercise on ischemic heart disease

Moderate alcohol consumption was defined as consuming between 1 and 14 alcoholic drinks a week while physical inactivity was defined as participating in less than 2 hours of light exercise a week.

Physical activity led to a larger absolute reduction in ischemic heart disease risk in non-drinkers compared to moderate drinkers (approx. 35% reduction vs 20% reduction). The researchers added while both moderate exercise and alcohol consumption are important for reducing heart disease risk, in cases where alcohol consumption is not possible, e.g. for religious reasons, or in recovering alcoholics, physical exercise becomes even more important.

“Our study shows that being both physically active and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol is important for lowering the risk of both fatal IHD and death from all causes.” said research leader Professor Morton Gronbaek who works at the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen, Denmark.

It is thought that alcohol consumption reduces the risk of heart disease by thinning the blood and boosting levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol without increasing LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. Alcohol consumption also appears to decrease levels of fibrinogen in the blood. Fibrinogen promotes blood clotting and high levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks.

The benefits of alcohol are erased however when it is consumed at higher levels where the negatives of alcohol kick in. These negative effects include increased blood pressure, brain shrinkage, increased risk of dementia, liver damage, weight gain, and an increased risk of mouth, throat,  stomach, liver, and colorectal cancers. For most people, the negative effects of alcohol begin to outweigh the positives at four standard drinks a day for men, and around three drinks a day for women.

The benefits of exercise on heart disease are mainly due to increases in insulin sensitivity, reduced inflammation in the body, improvements in vascular endothelial function, and reductions in body weight.