While ethanol intake at high levels (3-4 or more drinks), either in acute (occasional binge drinking) or chronic (daily) settings, increases the risk for myocardial infarction and stroke, an inverse relationship between regular consumption of alcoholic beverages at light to moderate levels (1-2 drinks per day) and cardiovascular risk has been consistently noted in a large number of epidemiologic studies. Although initially attributed to polyphenolic antioxidants in red wine, subsequent work has established that the ethanol component contributes to the beneficial effects associated with moderate intake of alcoholic beverages regardless of type (red versus white wine, beer, spirits). Concerns have been raised with regard to interpretation of epidemiologic evidence for this association including heterogeneity of the reference groups examined in many studies, different lifestyles of moderate drinkers versus abstainers, and favorable risk profiles in moderate drinkers. However, better controlled epidemiologic studies and especially work conducted in animal models and cell culture systems have substantiated this association and clearly established a cause and effect relationship between alcohol consumption and reductions in tissue injury induced by ischemia/reperfusion (I/R), respectively. The aims of this review are to summarize the epidemiologic evidence supporting the effectiveness of ethanol ingestion in reducing the likelihood of adverse cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and ischemic stroke, even in patients with co-existing risk factors, to discuss the ideal quantities, drinking patterns, and types of alcoholic beverages that confer protective effects in the cardiovascular system, and to review the findings of recent experimental studies directed at uncovering the mechanisms that underlie the cardiovascular protective effects of antecedent ethanol ingestion. Mechanistic interrogation of the signaling pathways invoked by antecedent ethanol ingestion may point the way towards development of new therapeutic approaches that mimic the powerful protective effects of socially relevant alcohol intake to limit I/R injury, but minimize the negative psychosocial impact and pathologic outcomes that also accompany consumption of ethanol.
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