How do different drinks affect your heart?

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Originally published at https://www.bhf.org.uk, written by Leanne Grech

If you’re reading this, it means you’re alive. You have a fist-sized organ in your chest that’s continuously pumping about eight pints of blood around your body. It is this red liquid flowing through our veins that keeps us alive — but the question is: can the liquids we drink help us to stay alive longer?

The glass half full: Can alcohol be good for you?

It’s been a hard day, and you’ve been working like a dog. So you go home, you pour yourself a glass of Merlot and you unwind watching the ten o’clock news. It’s the perfect evening, and it could not get any better, except when the news says: “a molecule found in red wine could help protect against heart and circulatory problems”. But how exactly, and does that mean I should start drinking more red wine?

BHF-funded researchers from King’s College London have discovered that resveratrol — a molecule found in the skin of red grapes and therefore in red wine — causes drops in blood pressure. Dr Joseph Burgoyne, who led the study, showed that adding resveratrol to the diet of mice with high blood pressure caused this to drop by around 20 mmHg compared to mice fed a normal diet. It turns out that resveratrol has this effect by targeting a protein called PKG1alpha in the blood vessel walls, causing them to relax, and the blood pressure to drop.

High blood pressure is an extremely common condition in the UK, affecting around one in three adults in England and Scotland. In the future, this finding could lead to the development of new blood pressure drugs, bringing us a step closer to tackling this silent killer.

Disclaimer (please, do not try this at home): You would need to drink 1,000 bottles of red wine a day to consume the same doses of resveratrol used in this study.

In separate news, researchers from University College London and Université Paris-Saclay have used data from the Whitehall II Study, which is part-funded by the BHF, to look at the health of over 9,000 civil servants in London over 23 years. Here, they revealed that people who do not drink any alcohol in middle age may be at a higher risk of dementia later in life, which then begs the question: will drinking alcohol reduce my risk of dementia? Can alcohol actually be good for me?

The glass half empty: No, alcohol is not good for you.

It isn’t — and although hopes were lifted there for a second, we all know that any benefits of drinking alcohol are outweighed by long-term health risks: cancer, heart and circulatory diseases, liver disease… the list goes on.

Dr Angela Wood at the University of Cambridge, part-funded by the BHF, compared the drinking and health habits of more than 600,000 people in 19 countries worldwide and found that drinking alcohol is associated with a higher risk of fatal aortic aneurysm, heart failure, stroke and death. It is also linked with a shorter life expectancy, in that, if you have 10 or more drinks per week, you could die one to two years earlier.

So no, alcohol is not good for you, especially if you also factor in the hangover you get the next day.

It’s OK, keep calm and drink green tea instead

It goes without saying that the best antidote for a hangover is not to get one. Now, for some that means not drinking alcohol — for others it suggests a doner kebab at 4 am or slurping green tea in bed, with rehydration by green tea being the healthier option if you’re looking to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

In fact, green tea is more than just a hangover cure. Professor Charles Redwood is leading a BHF-funded project at the University of Oxford to explore using a component in green tea as a potential treatment for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is an inherited disease of the heart muscle where the muscle wall becomes thickened — this thickening makes it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body.

If you were to look at heart muscle cells under a microscope, you would see a striated or striped pattern — the dark stripes are thick filaments containing myosin proteins and the lighter stripes are thin filaments containing actin proteins. In the heart muscle, contraction happens when the myosin filament pulls the actin filaments towards each other. In order for the muscle to relax, the actin filaments must return to their original position.

Genetic faults that cause HCM can affect these filaments, specifically causing them to contract more than normal, leading to the thickening of the heart muscle. So, can we find a way to dampen the over-contraction of these filaments in HCM? Introducing epigallocatechin-3-gallate: the component in green tea which can do just this — but only very weakly.

Agreed — “very weakly” may not sound encouraging, but HCM is a dangerous disease without a cure, and even a weak effect makes for a promising start in the lab. Indeed, the team in Oxford are now creating and testing chemicals similar to the ingredient in green tea, with the hope of finding one that could be a successful treatment for this inherited disease.

What about coffee?

So what if you are a coffee person and not a green tea person? How does drinking coffee affect your heart and circulatory system?

In a recent project at Queen Mary University of London, researchers used data from the UK Biobank Imaging Study, which is part-funded by the BHF, to look into how coffee influences the stiffness of the arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart to the rest of the body). In a nutshell, if your arteries become stiff, the pressure on your heart increases, as does the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

The team, led by Professor Steffen Petersen, showed that drinking coffee is not associated with stiffer arteries, including in people who drink up to 25 cups of coffee a day. Overall, an interesting result, but in no way does it mean that it is safe to drink so many cups a day — just that coffee is not as bad as previously thought.

Would you like some _ _ _ _ with that?

Solve the Riddle:

I’m drinkable but I’m not water.
I’m white but I’m not a snowman.
In a year, Starbucks uses 93 million gallons of me, which is enough to fill up 155 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Scientists know very little about the sugars I contain and how they affect blood fat levels.

What am I?

Milk, the answer is milk — a white, drinkable liquid containing a type of sugar called lactose, which is made up of galactose and glucose units.

Previous work from BHF-funded researcher Dr Javier Gonzalez and his team at the University of Bath showed that the addition of galactose to a high-fat meal increases the fat levels in the blood after the meal. They also showed that galactose can cause fat to accumulate in liver cells. If this true, then drinking milk and its sugars could have health implications.

In a follow-up project, the team will ask obese or overweight people at increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases to drink a high-fat drink containing lactose and a tracer to track where the fat goes. In addition, blood tests will be carried out to measure the effect of the drink on blood fat levels. One day, this study could help improve nutritional guidelines on refined sugars in milky drinks and so reduce the risk of heart and circulatory diseases.

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How do different drinks affect your heart? was originally published in British Heart Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.