Drinking to Your Health: A Case Study in Stress Management

CPPA Students
5 min readAug 15, 2023
Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

By: Alexander Korski

This blog has been reviewed by Şimal Dölek and Alvina Lai; edited, formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.

I heard a few times growing up that a modest amount of red wine in one’s diet is good for the heart. I never questioned this, tossing it into my brain’s junk drawer of unverified facts from my childhood. Recently, I confidently brandished this fun fact in conversation, half-jokingly using it to justify my enjoyment of a glass of red wine a few times a week. Much to my dismay, my friend later provided me with an article summarizing science’s current stance on the issue: the benefits of light-to-moderate drinking are dubious, while the harms are well-established. Because of the ethical issues involved in devising a study featuring alcohol consumption, there is a lack of solid experimental evidence supporting the idea of light drinking as beneficial. Therefore, there are serious methodological concerns with any perceived correlations. For example, research has found that light drinkers tend to have healthier habits than those who don’t drink at all, a difference that more feasibly explains better health outcomes than the alcohol itself.¹ Furthermore, there is solid, chemical evidence of alcohol consumption increasing risk of cancer and other negative outcomes. This “risk starts to go up well below [drinking] levels where people would think.”¹

In response to this revelation, I shamelessly submitted to confirmation bias, scouring the internet for any reputable, contemporary analysis that would salvage my drinking habit. The best I could do was an article summarizing the viewpoints of a few experts. In short, while some studies suggest benefits from light drinking — notably a reduced risk for heart disease — the downsides mean that it cannot be recommended at the population level. Instead, individuals ought to use the available evidence to inform their personal decisions.² I’m not sure what I expected, but this made enough sense. At least I had learned something.

Why am I sharing this on a blog about positive psychology? Yesterday, I came across a brand new development in the debate. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital have provided compelling evidence to suggest that the mechanism enabling cardiovascular benefits from light-to-moderate drinking may be the long-term reduction of stress signaling that it provides.³ Many are aware of the immediate short-term relaxation caused by consuming alcohol, but this research indicates that consistent light drinking can reduce stress overall, rather than just after drinking. Using brain imaging technology, the study found reduced stress signaling in the amygdalas of light-to-moderate drinkers compared to those who didn’t drink at all. This significantly accounted for the fewer cardiovascular issues experienced by the former group. This protective effect was almost twice as powerful for individuals with a history of anxiety.³ The critical discovery of this research is that certain activities — in this case, alcohol consumption — are capable of producing long-term changes in brain networks, subsequently influencing outcomes within the body.

I don’t think my editor would be pleased if I ended it here. The takeaway is not to self-medicate your stress by drinking. That would probably be a one-way ticket to alcoholism, and even if it helps, the previously discussed risks far outweigh the benefits. I found this development interesting because it reframed a formerly purely physiological issue in a whole new light, reiterating a recurring theme in positive psychology: if you take care of your brain, your body will thank you. The Massachusetts General Hospital team concluded their work by explaining that, given the cancer risk associated with any amount of drinking, further research on alternative activities capable of achieving a similar long-term stress dampening effect is warranted. Obvious candidates include exercise and meditation.³

. . . as researchers investigate healthier ways than booze to chemically soothe your amygdala, you would do well to exercise, meditate, and take a page out the book of our Student Ambassadors’ success strategies.

The CPPA has explored the myriad implications of stress management before. It is crucial not to overlook the detrimental consequences of neglecting stress, as this can lead to burnout, which puts you at risk for both physical and mental ailments.⁴ Handling stress doesn’t only consist of individual activities, either. Many entries in the CPPA’s Student Success Series include an account of how the author counteracted the stress-inducing pressures of their life with the habits and mindset that work for them.⁵ These stories of resilience align with what we know about dealing with stress. Fostering qualities such as self-sufficiency and self-control in yourself can help you prepare for stressful situations in the future, reducing the impact that they would otherwise have.⁶

As pleased as I was to find out that my original beliefs about the cardiovascular benefits of light drinking hold water (sort of), it was even more satisfying to see the topic break into the field of psychology and demonstrate the importance of stress management for our health. In the meantime, as researchers investigate healthier ways than booze to chemically soothe your amygdala, you would do well to exercise, meditate, and take a page out the book of our Student Ambassadors’ success strategies.

Thank you for reading my blog with the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. If you haven’t already, please consider getting your CPPA membership to join our wonderful community and check out our Student Zone. Plus, if you liked this blog or if it has helped you in any way, please take a moment to like, share, or comment.

References

  1. Future plc. (2023, March 19). The Truth About Alcohol. The Week. https://theweek.com/science/health/1021892/the-truth-about-alcohol?fbclid=IwAR0rRb1wDurrjNELdEE3sywtHEqFRMJK44jDhQoJYj5m8lAbK7a5hriF0Ac
  2. Ducharme, J. (2018, August 24). A New Study Says Any Amount of Drinking Is Bad for You. Here’s What Experts Say. TIME. https://time.com/5376552/how-much-alcohol-to-drink-study/?fbclid=IwAR0_sA5_aLC44IAGRT6Fa2IQIaBpTGWTT0SM1CQHKyumyHNuSscbE7iZzos
  3. Mezue, K., Osborne, M. T., Abohashem, S., Zureigat, H., Gharios, C., Grewal, S. S., Radfar, A., Cardeiro, A., Abbasi, T., Choi, K. W., Fayad, Z. A., Smoller, J. W., Rosovsky, R., Shin, L., Pitman, R., & Tawakol, A. (2023). Reduced stress-related neural network activity mediates the effect of alcohol on cardiovascular risk. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 81(24), 2315–2325. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2023.04.015
  4. Amodeo, L. (2022, August 3). Dealing with Burnout. Medium. https://cppastudents.medium.com/dealing-with-burnout-e804e98deaee
  5. Schueller, B. (2022, September 15). Student Success Series. Medium. https://cppastudents.medium.com/student-success-series-with-b%C3%A9a-schueller-2f58fecde352
  6. Gaudreau, C. (2020, September 29). Resilience Stories Series: Overcoming the Challenges of Depression and Anxiety. Medium. https://cppastudents.medium.com/resilience-stories-series-overcoming-the-challenges-of-depression-and-anxiety-526017fb760c

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CPPA Students

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