How Alcohol Can Affect Your Heart
There are many correlations between heavy alcohol consumption and negative impacts on the cardiovascular system. Binge drinking can lead to high blood pressure or even conditions like atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy. Here’s what we currently know about the connection between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease.
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How Alcohol Can Increase Your Risk of Heart-Related Death
When we want to improve our health, sometimes we get so caught up in managing what we eat, we forget to think about what we drink. The calories and health impacts of beverages are just as important to consider when thinking about your risk for health issues. Drinks like iced lattes, sodas and sweet tea can be loaded with sugar, not to mention perhaps the most consequential sugary beverage: alcohol.
In moderation, alcohol is not "bad" across the board. Some studies have even linked moderate alcohol consumption with positive health benefits, though the correlation is not strong enough for most doctors and researchers to encourage drinking as a healthy practice. Often any benefits reaped from those drinks, like the antioxidants in red wine, can be found elsewhere, like in fruits, vegetables and juice.
"The best-known positive health effect of alcohol is a small increase in HDL, or good cholesterol. But regular physical activity is a more effective way to raise HDL cholesterol," the American Heart Association says.
What kind of heart problems does drinking cause?
There are many correlations between heavy alcohol consumption and negative impacts on the cardiovascular system. Binge drinking can lead to high blood pressure or even atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat which can in turn cause blood clots, stroke or heart failure.
Atrial fibrillation (often known as AFib) is a type of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) in which blood is not pumped properly through the heart's four chambers. This can cause the blood to pool and create clots, which can make their way into arteries and block blood flow to other parts of the body. This greatly increases your risk of having a stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. With Afib, your risk of stroke multiplies by five.
In addition to the risk of developing AFib, the extra calories in alcohol can lead to weight gain or high blood sugar. Both obesity and diabetes are additional risk factors for heart problems.
Why does alcohol affect the heart?
It's widely understood that binge drinking is detrimental to heart health; even one binge drinking session can cause arrhythmia. However, the exact explanation for alcohol's effect on the heart remains unknown. Heavy alcohol consumption certainly affects the body in many ways, but the exact mechanism affecting heart health is not well understood.
In addition to arrhythmias, alcohol consumption has been linked to a number of heart-related issues, including cardiomyopathy, a disorder that reduces the heart's ability to effectively pump blood.
"You can actually drink your heart muscle into a weakened state when you consume heavily (four to five drinks a day over several years)," writes a cardiologist for Heart and Stroke.
Binge drinking also leads to higher blood pressure and high calorie consumption, which can lead to weight gain that negatively affects your heart. If you're at risk for diabetes or are obese — both risk factors for heart problems — it might be worth considering cutting it out completely.
"Alcohol is made out of sugar," cardiologist Leslie Cho tells the Cleveland Clinic. "So if you are predisposed to being diabetic or if high triglycerides is one of your issues, it's not a good idea to drink alcohol."
Those triglycerides combined with high levels of "bad" cholesterol, (LDL) or low levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL) can lead to buildup in artery walls, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Holiday Heart Syndrome
Though the exact path of cause-and-effect of alcohol on the cardiovascular system is not clearly understood, the correlation is so clear that drinking-induced heart arrhythmias have gained the title of "Holiday Heart Syndrome."
Holiday heart syndrome was coined to describe the prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders like atrial fibrillation resulting from binge drinking during the holidays. (The added stress of finances, family and traveling this time of year doesn't help either.) The first appearance of the term was in a study published in 1978, which explained an increase in cardiac hospitalizations in the days following Christmas and New Year's Eve.
"Episodes usually followed heavy weekend or holiday sprees, resulting in hospitalization between Sunday and Tuesday or in proximity to the year-end holidays, a relationship not observed in other alcohol-associated illnesses," the study abstract says.
Research has confirmed this correlation since that original study, as recently as 2018. A study published in the British Medical Journal that year found that heart attack risk spiked on holidays like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day, in addition to large sporting events and other national holidays. During the Christmas and New Year's holidays, that risk went up 15 percent.
How much alcohol is okay to drink?
If you already have an arrhythmia or heart failure, it's safest to abstain entirely from alcohol, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Bill McEvoy. The risk outweighs the reward.
If you are going to drink, be sure to stay within the guidelines of moderation: one drink per day for females and two a day for males, according to the American Heart Association. One drink is defined as 12 oz. of beer, 4 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz of 80-proof spirits.
For context, binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in two hours for women, or five or more drinks in two hours for men.
How do I find out if I have AFib or other heart problems?
The best way to find out if you have any cardiovascular issues is to talk to your doctor about screenings. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American adults across nearly every race and ethnicity. Every 40 seconds someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Every 37 seconds a person dies from cardiovascular disease. Almost half of all adult Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure).
The good news? Heart disease is largely preventable.
Preemptive measures like a healthy lifestyle and preventive screenings are crucial to avoiding a medical emergency in the future, especially if you exhibit risk factors now. If you want to fight heart disease, you have to understand what those risk factors are.
In addition to heavy drinking, risk factors for AFib include:
- Age 50+
- Coronary heart disease, heart defects, or heart failure
- Rheumatic heart disease or pericarditis
- Diabetes or metabolic syndrome
- Lung disease or kidney disease
- Sleep apnea Family history of AFib
- Age 55+
- High blood pressure
- Family history of heart disease or stroke
- Smoking, past or present
- High cholesterol
- Excessive drinking
If you exhibit any of the above risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting screened as soon as you can. Becoming familiar with your health is the first step to avoiding a medical emergency later on.
Life Line Screening is proud to provide quick and painless screenings for the risk of carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, and atrial fibrillation (AFib), which can provide you invaluable peace of mind or early detection.
Schedule a screening today to arm yourself with knowledge about your own health so you can be better equipped to live the life you want to live. If you have any questions about screenings or heart health, please give us a call at 888.683.4070. We would love to help.
Our $149 Screening Package will assess your risk for Stroke and Cardiovascular disease.
Screening package includes
American Heart Association - "Is drinking alcohol a part of a healthy lifestyle?"
Johns Hopkins Medicine - Alcohol and Heart Health: Separating Fact from Fiction
Cleveland Clinic - "4 Facts You Should Know About How Alcohol Affects Your Heart"
American Heart Journal - "Arrhythmias and the "Holiday Heart": Alcohol associated cardiac rhythm disorders"