Drinking alcohol has both a positive and negative impact on the heart. Like many relationships between lifestyle and health, the key is probably in the dose. And since cardiovascular health encompasses many organs and body systems, alcohol may affect different cardiovascular disease differently.
Those who consume a lot of alcohol should do so more moderately. The meaning of moderation depends on who you are. For men, moderation is up to two drinks per day. For women, moderation is up to one drink per day.
People who drink in moderation have a lower risk of heart problems and death compared with people who don’t drink at all and people who drink heavily. Moderate drinking is associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, stroke, and dying from all causes.
How does drinking alcohol help the heart? It improves the ability of the body to use insulin and improving HDL cholesterol levels are two ways scientists have found alcohol to benefit the cardiovascular system.
There have been several studies indicating that drinking red wine is good for the heart. But several population studies have found that the heart health benefit does not differ according to the type of drink – beer, wine and liquor seem to produce similar benefits. Therefore, the actual alcohol in these beverages seems to provide the majority of the benefit.
While coronary artery disease and type II diabetes have been shown to be lower among drinkers, alcohol can definitely lead to heart disease. When relationships between drinking and heart disease are discovered, heavy drinking is usually the contributing factor.
Cardiomyopathy, higher blood pressure and higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke have been found among heavy drinkers. Increasing alcohol use can cause high triglycerides levels to become even worse and blood pressure can become elevated from high alcohol use (three drinks per day or more).
Don’t binge drink. The practice is not recommended!
Drinking does not replace heart healthy exercise as the primary means to reducing heart disease and other cardiovascular ailments.
Of course, obvious dangers of alcohol consumption exist and many people are warned against drinking any alcohol. These groups include alcoholics and people who cannot restrict their intake, women who are pregnant or lactating, minors, and people taking certain medications or with certain medical conditions. Plus, alcohol can interfere with attention and coordination and should not be consumed unless activities that require these skills need not be performed.
It’s also important to remember that alcoholic beverages are sometimes loaded with calories and most alcoholic beverages do not provide useful nutrients. Because of this, alcohol may interfere with the ability to maintain a healthy weight (if alcohol is ‘added’ to daily calorie needs) or may interfere with getting adequate nutrients (if alcohol is substituted for nutrient-dense foods and beverages). Heavy drinkers may need to adopt a low sodium diet in order to gain some semblance of cardiovascular health. The recommended diet should come from a physician.
For now, public health recommendations about drinking alcohol fall short of recommending that people drink alcohol in order to see benefits. The American Heart Association recommends that if alcohol is already being consumed, learn how much is too much.