November 14, 2022

How Alcohol Affects Your Heart

Alcohol use may cause an irregular heartbeat, raised blood pressure and more

Closeup of a happy person drinking red wine.

You likely know that drinking alcohol too often or to excess isn’t a good idea, health-wise. But when it comes to alcohol and heart health, you may have heard different sides. Is drinking all that bad for your heart? Can a glass of wine help reduce your risk of heart disease — or make it worse?

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First things first: If you drink alcohol, you should do so in moderation to avoid alcohol-related heart issues. And you should never intentionally use alcohol to try to reduce your risk of heart disease.

To further explore the relationship between your ticker and your favorite glass of merlot or IPA, we chatted with cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

Ways alcohol can impact heart health

Here are some of the effects of alcohol on your heart:

Increased heart rate

One of the most important things your heart does is keep a rhythm. On average, a regular heart rate is about 60 to 100 beats per minute when your body is at rest. But alcohol can lead to your heart rate temporarily jumping up in speed, and if it goes over 100 beats per minute, it can cause a condition called tachycardia. Too many episodes of tachycardia could lead to more serious issues like heart failure or going into irregular rhythms, which can cause heart attack and stroke.

Raises blood pressure

That fourth drink at the bar may feel like it’s relaxing you, but it’s actually affecting your body differently than you might think. Alcohol can affect your blood pressure, causing it to go up temporarily. This is especially true when you engage in binge drinking (that’s defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women and people assigned female at birth, and five or more drinks within two hours for men and people assigned male at birth).

And sure, we’ve all had a night here or there where we’ve had one too many and we know it. But it’s important to make sure those nights of overindulgence are the exception and not the rule. If you’re not sure, make a note to tune into how much you’re having over the course of the next month or so. If it’s more than recommended, try to consciously pace your drinking to help reduce the spike in your blood pressure that excessive alcohol causes.

And if you have a history of high blood pressure, it’s best to avoid alcohol completely or drink only occasionally, and in moderation.

Irregular heartbeat

Whether it’s a glass of red wine with your turkey or toasting champagne for the new year, alcohol definitely becomes more present during the holiday season. And while enjoying celebratory spirits in moderation is alright for most people, it’s important to be aware you can fall victim to holiday heart syndrome if you overdo it. This is when overeating and overindulging in alcohol lead to an irregular heartbeat.

Holiday heart syndrome can happen if you don’t typically drink alcohol, but then have a few at a holiday party or if you binge drink. This can cause you to develop an irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation, which can increase your risk of stroke, heart attack and heart failure.

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Prolonged drinking can cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy

The short-term effects of alcohol (headache, nausea, you know the rest) are easy to pinpoint. But there are ways that alcohol affects your body over time that are important to understand. One of the long-term effects of alcohol on your heart is alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This is when your heart-pumping function gets weaker and your heart gets larger due to changes from heavy alcohol use over a long period of time.

OK, don’t panic. If you’re an occasional drinker, there’s no cause for worry. But it may be worthwhile learning about what counts as binge drinking and whether or not you may be drinking too much and don’t even know it.

Is some level of alcohol safe or beneficial?

It’s true, red wine is a better choice than hard liquor. But can a trip to the wine bar boost your heart health?

You should never consider wine or any other alcohol as a way to lower your heart disease risk. And, in fact, the study also showed that drinking one or fewer drinks per day was related to the lowest likelihood of dying from a stroke. However, Dr. Cho points out that more recent data shows that there may be no amount of alcohol that is truly safe. “The myth that wine is beneficial for heart health is no longer true,” she states.

“It’s not a good idea to start drinking alcohol in an effort to lower your risk of heart disease,” Dr. Cho continues. “It’s better not to drink any alcohol at all.”

The American Heart Association recommends the same.

Other factors to keep in mind

It’s also important to know that the ways in which alcohol affects your heart will vary from person to person, depending on your age and other conditions you may have.

Age

Let’s face it, a hangover in your mid-40s doesn’t feel the same as one in your early 20s. This is because your age plays a factor in how well you tolerate alcohol. While some people develop a tolerance to alcohol over time, this isn’t true for everyone — and this ability doesn’t last forever, Dr. Cho notes.

“As we get older, our ability to clear alcohol definitely decreases and our sensitivity to alcohol probably increases,” she explains. “Also as we get older, we end up having more diseases, so we could be on medicines that can interfere with the way our bodies metabolize alcohol.”

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Other medical conditions

In many ways, your medical history (and present) can tell you a lot about your future with alcohol. That means, if you’re living with other medical conditions and/or taking certain medications, this will all have an impact on how alcohol affects you.

“Certain health conditions can make drinking alcohol more dangerous,” Dr. Cho says.

For example, some people who are on cholesterol-lowering medicines may experience muscle aches when they drink alcohol. Because alcohol and cholesterol medicine both are processed through your liver, they are, in a sense, competing for clearance. So, it’s important to think about your overall health and talk to a healthcare provider about your personal risk factors.

“Alcohol is made out of sugar,” Dr. Cho points out. “So, if you’re predisposed to diabetes or if high triglycerides are one of your issues, it’s not a good idea to drink alcohol.”

Dr. Cho also warns that if you have liver dysfunction or take other medicines that are processed through the liver, your risks might be different. Talk to your healthcare provider about how alcohol might interact with your prescription medicines.

The last thing you want is for that casual drink after work or glass of wine at dinner to negatively impact your heart health. There’s a way to have a healthy, balanced relationship with alcohol that lets you enjoy a drink occasionally and celebrate with friends and family. But your heart is an important organ that should also be cared for, so be sure to drink in moderation, learn about binge drinking and know what your body can (and can’t) tolerate before opening that tab.

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