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Alcohol & Heart Health | Dangers & Impacts to Your Heart

When it comes to maintaining a healthy heart, alcohol use is not recommended.[1]  Even moderate alcohol use can have detrimental effects. Excessive alcohol use can be devastating to heart health, increasing the risk of conditions like high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, and damage to the heart muscle.[2]

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How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

While occasional and moderate social drinking may be enjoyed responsibly without significant risks to heart health, it is important to understand the definition of true moderation when it comes to alcohol intake.

Generally, it is advised that women drink no more than one drink per day and men drink no more than two drinks per day.[3] People with certain health conditions like cirrhosis should not drink at all. Anyone who has ever struggled with substance misuse or substance use disorder (SUD) is advised to avoid alcohol use entirely.

Drinking outside the bounds of these guidelines can lead to various health problems, including an increased risk of heart-related issues. Whether drinking more drinks than recommended daily or binge drinking large amounts of alcohol once or twice a week,  risks to the heart may manifest as higher blood pressure, increased arrhythmias, and increased risk of heart disease.[2]

If you find yourself consistently exceeding moderate drinking guidelines, experiencing adverse effects from alcohol, or finding it hard to control your alcohol consumption, this could be indicative of an alcohol abuse problem. With comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment, you can safely stop drinking and build a positive life in recovery.

How Does Alcohol Damage Heart Health? 

Excessive alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on heart health, presenting several potential risks.[2]

High Blood Pressure

Alcohol has multiple mechanisms that can contribute to the development or exacerbation of high blood pressure, including these:[4]  

  • Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system
  • Disruption of hormonal balance
  • Dehydration
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Interference with medications
  • Increase in insulin resistance

While moderate alcohol consumption may have minimal impact on blood pressure for some, heavy drinking significantly raises the risk of hypertension. 

Cardiomyopathy

Excessive and prolonged drinking directly damages the heart muscle, weakening its ability to pump blood effectively.[5] Additionally, alcohol can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which further contribute to cardiomyopathy. Alcohol also produces harmful byproducts that cause oxidative stress and damage the heart cells while disrupting the regulation of calcium in the heart, which leads to abnormal heart muscle function.[5] 

Irregular Heart Rhythm 

Alcohol can cause irregular heart rhythms in the following ways:[6]

  • Disrupting the heart’s electrical signals
  • Causing imbalances in electrolytes
  • Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system
  • Damaging the heart muscle
  • Interacting with medications

Even moderate alcohol consumption can sometimes trigger irregular heartbeats. 

Increased Triglyceride Levels

Alcohol can raise triglyceride levels in several ways. First, excessive alcohol intake adds extra calories and contributes to weight gain, leading to an increase in triglycerides. Next, alcohol disrupts how the liver processes and removes triglycerides as well as interferes with metabolism processes.[7] When alcohol use disrupts diet choices, causing a nutritional imbalance, triglyceride levels may rise.

Caloric Intake & Weight Gain

Alcohol is a high-calorie beverage that contributes to overall caloric consumption and weight gain over time.[8] Drinking may stimulate appetite, which decreases the ability to eat in moderation. Poor nutritional choices often accompany alcohol use, leading to an unbalanced diet, impaired metabolism, and interrupted sleep patterns that all cause further weight gain.

Increased Risk of Blood Clotting

Alcohol use in any amount can increase the risk of blood clotting for these reasons:[9] 

  • Promotes the clumping of blood platelets
  • Disrupts the normal clotting process
  • Raises triglyceride levels
  • Causes dehydration
  • Impairs liver function
  • Interferes with blood-thinning medications 

Weakened Immune System

Alcohol inhibits immune cell activity and reduces the immune response, which together increases susceptibility to infections and impairs wound healing.[10] For those who already have a weakened immune system or are at risk of infection, it is advisable to avoid alcohol use entirely. Even for those with strong immune systems, binge drinking or alcohol use, in general, may increase the likelihood of developing an illness or infection if exposed to a virus or bacteria.

Alcohol Consumption: Factors to Consider

Several factors can impact how much alcohol is too much when it comes to heart health. These include the following:[2,11-14] 

Age

Older adults may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol due to metabolic changes, diminished tolerance levels, or use of medications that may amplify the effects of alcohol or be rendered ineffective.

Medical Conditions

Alcohol intake of any amount can aggravate current liver disease, heart disease, diabetes, and immune disorders. Alcohol abuse and AUD can potentially contribute to the development of these problems in otherwise healthy individuals.

Medications

Certain medications can interact negatively with alcohol, leading to adverse side effects or reduced efficacy.

Genetics

Genetic factors may impact how alcohol is processed by the body, increasing some individuals’ risks of alcohol-related health complications.

Family History

A family history of AUD, or SUD in general, can increase the risk for alcohol-related health issues.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, and overall health habits, can have an effect on how alcohol impacts the body. Those who are sedentary may be at higher risk of complications due to alcohol use.

Sex

Alcohol can have different impacts on males and females due to body composition differences and metabolism differences. Women are generally more prone to the harmful effects of alcohol consumption.

Updated January 11, 2024
Resources
  1. Alcohol and health: all, none, or somewhere in-between? The Lancet Rheumatology. 2023;5(4):e167.
  2. Alcohol’s effects on the cardiovascular system. Piano MR. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2017;38(2):219-241.
  3. Alcohol use and your health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published December 29, 2021. Accessed December 18, 2023.
  4. Alcohol intake and blood pressure levels: A dose-response meta-analysis of nonexperimental cohort studies. Silvia Di Federico, Filippini T, Whelton PK, et al. Hypertension. Published July 31, 2023. Accessed December 18, 2023.
  5. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Shaaban A, Gangwani MK, Pendela VS, Vindhyal MR. PubMed. Published 2021.
  6. Holiday heart syndrome revisited after 34 years. Tonelo D, Providência R, Gonçalves L. Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia. 2013;101(2).
  7. Alcohol and plasma triglycerides. Klop B, Rego AT do, Cabezas MC. Current Opinion in Lipidology. 2013;24(4):321-326.
  8. Alcohol: Balancing risks and benefits. Chan TH. The Nutrition Source. Published May 22, 2019. Accessed December 18, 2023.
  9. Influence of alcohol consumption on blood coagulation in rotational thromboelastometry (ROTEM): An in-vivo study. Eismann H, Sieg L, Ahmed H, et al. Korean Journal of Anesthesiology. 2020;73(4):334-341.
  10. Alcohol and the immune system. Sarkar D, Jung MK, Wang HJ. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2015;37(2):153-155.
  11. Drinking over the lifespan. Barry KL, Blow FC. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2016;38(1):115-120.
  12. Associations between medical conditions and alcohol consumption levels in an adult primary care population. Sterling SA, Palzes VA, Lu Y, et al. JAMA Network Open. 2020;3(5):e204687-e204687.
  13. The genetic relationship between alcohol consumption and aspects of problem drinking in an ascertained sample. Johnson EC, St. Pierre CL, Meyers JL, et al. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Published May 21, 2019.
  14. Alcohol may be more risky to the heart than previously thought. European Society of Cardiology. Published May 24, 2022. Accessed December 18, 2023.
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