Alcohol's Cardiovascular Conundrum
When it comes to deciphering the connection between alcohol and heart disease, there can be some confusion. Some studies highlight that drinking a glass of red wine every day can be protective of the heart thanks to the antioxidants it contains.
However, those antioxidants can be found in a variety of other foods, such as blueberries, grapes and other fruits and veggies. There may also be some confounding variables about the benefits of alcohol on heart disease. John Hopkins Medicine points out that those who drink red wine may have higher incomes or generally eat a healthier diet, both of which can impact heart health.
Generally speaking, moderate alcohol intake does not adversely affect heart health. With that in mind, this article will focus on the risks associated with heavy drinking and alcohol abuse on coronary heart disease.
What Constitutes Heavy Drinking and Alcohol Abuse?
When it comes to drinking, you might be surprised to learn that moderate drinking constitutes only one drink per day or fewer for women and two drinks per day or fewer for men. One drink is considered 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, 5 ounces of wine, 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor or 12 ounces of beer.
The CDC actually classifies heavy drinking as 15 or more drinks per week for men or eight or more drinks per week for women. Alcohol consumption has become so common in our society that you might be surprised at how few drinks it takes to be classified as a heavy drinker. Many individuals likely also engage in binge drinking, which is when they consume enough drinks to bring their blood alcohol concentrations to 0.08% or higher.
The amount of drinks this requires depends on the person, but roughly, it corresponds to five drinks for men and four drinks for women on a single occasion. Even if you’re staying under the allotted drinks per week to be a “moderate” drinker, if you’re consuming them all at once, it can have negative effects on your health.
Alcohol abuse is now typically called alcohol use disorder and is characterized by difficulties controlling alcohol consumption, preoccupation with drinking or continuing to drink alcohol despite it causing problems in your life (social, financial, physical or relational).
Often, individuals with alcohol use disorder need to drink more to experience the same effects as they build up a tolerance, and they may experience withdrawal symptoms if they quickly decrease or stop their drinking. If you think you may need help with alcohol use disorder, the NIAAA has many great resources.
How Does Alcohol Affect The Heart?
For most people, a drink or two a day likely won’t have any long-term negative health effects. However, heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder can cause specific actions on the heart that may lead to issues down the road.
1. Alcohol Can Raise Your Blood Pressure
Many of us sit down with a glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail to help unwind after a stressful day. However, alcohol is actually having the opposite effect on your body by raising your blood pressure, especially if you binge drink (remember the guidelines for binge drinking above!). Individuals with high blood pressure or family history should limit their alcohol consumption as much as possible to protect their heart.
2. Alcohol Increases Your Heart Rate
You may have had the experience of having a few drinks and noticing that your heart begins to beat faster, or perhaps you wake up with the dreaded hangxiety (a hangover + anxiety) to feel your heart racing.
This could be because alcohol can cause your heart rate to temporarily increase over the standard 60-100 beats per minute. If this happens occasionally, it’s likely not an issue but if drinking causes your heart rate to go over 100 beats per minute too regularly, it can lead to irregular rhythms that could cause a heart attack or stroke, or possibly even heart failure.
What Diseases are Associated with Heavy Drinking?
Due to the effects on the heart that were mentioned above, heavy drinking can lead to a variety of heart conditions, including:
- High blood pressure.
- Alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy–prolonged alcohol use decreases heart pumping function, which can cause the heart to become larger, changing its shape. These changes can lead to long-term damage and possible heart failure.
- Heart failure.
In addition to the above-mentioned impacts on heart health and the heart diseases alcohol can contribute to, it can also have a detrimental effect on another important organ: the liver. Alcohol is processed in the liver, and if you drink more than it can handle, it can end up damaging the liver cells. Heavy drinkers or those with AUD tend to progress through three stages of liver damage:
- Fatty liver disease: a buildup of fatty tissue in the liver, which causes enlargement. It is the most common liver disease associated with drinking.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: an acute inflammation of the liver, which can lead to cellular death and permanent damage.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: the final stage where normal liver tissue is destroyed and replaced by scar tissue.
It’s safe to say that with alcohol, the dose makes the poison. Ongoing, excessive alcohol consumption in the form of heavy drinking or alcohol abuse can have negative effects on your heart health. Remember to follow the guidelines for moderate drinking and to engage in other heart-healthy activities such as eating a diet rich in antioxidants, getting regular physical activity, not smoking and reducing stress.