Many people enjoy a beer or two on occasion while watching the game on TV, a stiff drink after a long day of work, or a round of shots with friends at the bar. Most people can keep their drinking to a minimum, but many can’t stop after just a drink or two. A worryingly large number of Americans abuse alcohol. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 14.4 million adults–9.2 million men and 5.3 million women–had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2018.
Those who meet the CDC’s Moderate Drinking guidelines (up to 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 a day for men) shouldn’t be too concerned about the health risks of alcohol. But if you’re abusing alcohol, it can lead to an early death, especially because of how it affects the heart.
How alcohol affects the heart
Excessive alcohol use can raise your blood pressure, increasing your risk for a heart attack or stroke. It can also cause you to gain weight, further raising your blood pressure. Heavy drinking also weakens the heart muscle, stopping it from pumping blood in an efficient manner. Once the heart becomes too weak, it may fail and lead to death.
Additionally, binge drinking can cause an irregular heartbeat. It’s called Holiday Heart Syndrome, named because people tend to drink more during holidays. Holiday Heart Syndrome usually appears after periods of heavy drinking–at least 15 units of alcohol (7.5 pints of beer, or 1.5 bottles of wine) consumed over a 24-hour period. This can lead to changes in blood pressure, increasing your risk for a heart attack.
Even moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to high blood pressure. Patients with cardiomyopathy or weak hearts should avoid alcohol as should those patients with arrhythmia. Alcohol drinking is associated with holiday heart syndrome which is developing atrial fibrillation within 48 hours of having consumed moderate alcohol or more. Patients with known atrial fibrillation and or cardiomyopathy are recommended alcohol abstinence.
Furthermore, drinking too much can lead to higher levels of triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides are a type of fats. If your blood triglyceride levels are too high, this can cause fat buildup in the walls of your arteries–increasing your risk for heart attack and stroke. High triglycerides can also contribute to pancreatic inflammation or pancreatitis.
The positive effects of alcohol on the heart
Some studies have found light drinking to have health benefits, but the American Heart Association maintains that “no research has proved a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health.” They do mention that moderate amounts of alcohol can lead to a small increase in HDL (good) cholesterol. But the increase is not significant. Instead, to protect the heart, they recommend getting enough exercise, avoiding tobacco, controlling high blood pressure, and eating well.
The bottom line is: If you’re concerned about your heart health, an occasional drink won’t do much harm. But binge drinking will lead to a slew of health problems and a lower quality of life overall.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld