March 6, 2022

Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?

Spoiler alert: The potential benefits of drinking alcohol may be a tad overstated

wine and cholesterol the connection

Can you really toast to your health with a daily glass of red wine or a beer? Eye-grabbing headlines often make the claim that moderate alcohol consumption can lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.

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But before you pop the top on a bottle to celebrate, a word of caution: The relationship between alcohol and your ticker is not that simple, according to interventional cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

“Any statement on the benefits of drinking alcohol has a lot of ‘ifs’ next to it,” says Dr. Cho. “You certainly shouldn’t take up alcohol to lower your cholesterol risk.”

So grab a glass of … well, let’s go with water to be safe … and let’s talk this over.

Can alcohol affect a cholesterol test?

Absolutely. Here’s why.

Much of the alcohol that flows into your system after tipping back a glass finds its way to your liver for a digestive after-party. Alcohol is broken down in your liver and reconstructed as cholesterol and triglycerides.

The more you drink, the more your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides rise. As you might imagine, high levels of either type of this waxy fat are not exactly desirable for managing cholesterol or optimal health.

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“People who drink a lot of alcohol tend to have very high triglycerides,” says Dr. Cho. “That can be a concern because elevated triglyceride levels can increase your risk for diabetes, pancreatitis and stroke.”

How much is too much?

Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol. Consider this advice from the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.”

So where’s that line? The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 advises that adults of legal drinking age should limit alcohol intake to two drinks or fewer in a day for men and one drink or fewer in a day for women.

This is not meant as a daily average or target, either. Instead, consider it more of a boundary on any given day when you might choose to have an alcoholic beverage.

It’s important to define what a “drink” means, too, as not all alcohol is the same. (Drink size can certainly vary, too, as anyone who has hoisted up a tall boy understands.) A standard alcoholic drink is typically defined as:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol).
  • 5 ounces of wine (about 12% alcohol).
  • 1.5 ounces of a distilled spirit (about 40% alcohol, or 80 proof).

Are there benefits to drinking alcohol?

Have there been studies showing the potential benefits of a glass of red wine or a hoppy brew? Yes, acknowledges Dr. Cho. But she cautions against thinking you’re boosting your health by tipping back an alcoholic beverage.

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For instance, take the claims that alcohol may increase your “good” cholesterol, more officially known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

“There’s some data that says the good cholesterol that’s increased by alcohol is dysfunctional,” notes Dr. Cho. “So you may be raising your levels of HDL, but you may not be seeing a real benefit.”

So don’t be lured to a brewery or wine bar with claims that libations double as health tonics. Whatever “benefits” may exist from drinking alcohol are dwarfed by increased risks of:

Bottom line? “You’re not going to drink your way to better health,” says Dr. Cho.

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