Although there is no disputing the fact that excessive consumption of alcohol can increase your risk of developing heart disease, there is evidence that drinking in moderation can actually improve heart health. It’s important to be aware of this distinction when studying the link between alcohol and heart disease.
Negative Effects of Alcohol on the Heart
In a general sense, heavy drinking compromises your overall health. It is well documented that it damages your liver, which in turn compromises your body’s ability to get rid of toxins, manufacture proteins, metabolize carbs and fats and perform hundreds of other functions properly.
Once your body stops functioning at optimal levels, everything gradually starts to shut down…including your heart and cardiovascular system.
More specifically, elevated alcohol consumption has been linked to the following:
1. An increased risk of irregular heart beat, called arrhythmia.
2. Higher levels of triglycerides (fat) in the blood, an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
3. An increased risk of sudden cardiac death and heart failure.
4. Weakening of the heart muscle, known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
5. A higher risk of developing high blood pressure, which could lead to heart attack or stroke.
So those are the main things to be concerned with when it comes to alcohol and heart disease. Now, as you’ll see below, there are some real benefits to moderate drinking, and not just red wine as is commonly believed.
Positive Effects of Alcohol on the Heart
The good news is that if you drink moderately, i.e. up to a drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, then you can actually reap health benefits from alcohol. Let’s take a look at the benefits of a couple of alcoholic beverages a day, which has been the subject of numerous studies:
1. Lower incidences of heart attack and stroke.
2. Lower incidences of coronary artery disease and sudden cardiac death.
3. An increase in HDL, or good cholesterol, which helps remove bad LDL cholesterol from the body.
4. Thinning of the blood, which can ease blood pressure and improve flow throughout the body.
5. Decreasing inflammation in the body, which lowers your risk of diseases of all kind.
The benefits above apply to all kinds of alcohol, including beer. However, some evidence points to the fact that red wine, due to antioxidants called polyphenols (one in particular is called resveratrol) can lower LDL, increase HDL, protect the heart, reduce inflammation and fight off cellular damage. So you may reap additional benefits if your drink of choice is red wine.
Some Common Questions Regarding Alcohol Consumption
Does alcohol increase heart rate?
Yes, it certainly can. As we mentioned above, one of the effects of alcohol on the heart is the increased risk of an irregular heartbeat, which means it can change the amount of time between beats. Moderate drinkers don’t typically experience this, but regular drinking can lead to tachycardia, an increased heart rate due to impaired electrical signals. If this happens often enough, it could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Can alcohol cause palpitations?
Palpitations are those feeling of unease like your heart is beating super fast, racing, or perhaps skipping a beat, and can be caused by stress, heavy activity, illness, food, caffeine, drugs and other things. Alcohol can also cause heart palpitations, especially heavier use. If it occurs infrequently, it’s usually not something to be concerned about. However, if it happens all the time, it’s something that should be looked into.
Can alcohol use lead to a heart attack?
Regular, heavy drinking can lead to a host of serious medical problems, including a heart attack or a stroke. Why is that? Because although our bodies can stand up to a good amount of abuse, over time this abuse takes its toll and your body is no longer able to fight it off. With damaged heart muscle, increased blood pressure, irregular heart beat and all of the other negative effects of alcohol, your chances of a sudden heart attack go up exponentially. Add to that a drug habit, high stress levels, lack of exercise and poor dietary habits and the situation is that much more dire. Can you drink your entire life and never have a heart attack? Of course, but why risk it?
Doesn’t Alcohol Slow Heart Rate By Relaxing You?
It can, and it does for some people but not for others. You may think that just because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that it would slow down your heart rate as well. You might say that a drink helps to relax you at the end of a long day. But the reality is, there are other factors at play, and while a drink may lower your heart rate, that same drink might increase the next person’s for a variety of reasons.
Alcohol and Heart Disease…What’s the Bottom Line?
It is safe to assume that one or two drinks a day is perfectly fine, and may provide your heart and body with some true benefits. That is not to say that if you currently do not drink you should start right away. You can reap similar benefits from food, exercise, lifestyle changes and other things that do not involve drinking.
It is also safe to assume that drinking heavily is not good for your heart or body. There is definitely a correlation between the number of drinks consumed and the damage done to your health. If you currently drink more than 2 drinks a day, you should certainly try to cut back.
What else can you do to reduce your risk?
So moderate drinking can be beneficial…what else can I do?
Watch your diet – Avoid unhealthy trans fats and hydrogenated oils found in fast food, margarine and spreads. Limit sugar intake and simple carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, potatoes and rice. Add fruits and vegetables, fiber, complex carbs and Omega 3-rich nuts, seeds and cold water fish.
Start exercising – Regular exercise, both aerobic and anaerobic, offers countless heart health benefits. Try to incorporate both as often as possible, and at least three days a week at a minimum.
Lead a healthy life – In addition to the link between alcohol and heart disease, there is an even more established smoking link. Try to stop smoking as soon as possible.
Also, try to lower your stress levels, as they can affect your blood pressure. Lastly, keep your weight in check. Obesity is one of the main risk factors and something you can control.
Strike a healthy balance between alcohol and heart disease…always drink in moderation.