Alcohol’s Effect on the Heart

Alcohol's effect on the heart

During the holidays, weddings and family gatherings, alcohol is a common staple. When used moderately, it can serve as a way to relax and enjoy yourself and those around you. Many people also believe that moderate drinking has health benefits, though the truth of that belief if uncertain.

In contrast, a prolonged pattern of heavy alcohol use can have several harmful effects on your heart and body. Even one heavy drinking session can cause harm in some cases. It’s important to monitor the effect alcohol has on your heart to know if you should limit or cut out alcohol from your diet and lifestyle. 

Does a Glass of Wine a Day Really Keep the Doctor Away?

The belief that a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away owes its force of conviction to the French Paradox. This paradox was discovered in 1992 and is based on the observation that France has historically low rates of heart disease despite the characteristic French diet of bread and cheese. Upon this discovery, researchers theorized that the common preference for red wine among the people of France holds the key to the paradox.

Some studies have lent credence to this notion, suggesting that the antioxidant properties present in red wine can provide cardioprotective benefits. However, other studies show skepticism. The reason for the skepticism is that it is difficult to establish a clear connection between moderate alcohol consumption and lower rates of heart disease. At any rate, the research is inconclusive on red wine’s impact on health. As for the French Paradox, other lifestyle and dietary factors likely contribute to France’s low heart disease rates.

Whether or not red wine is good for your heart, the established advice on alcohol, in general, is to drink in moderation. Some studies suggest that you reduce your drinking habits if anything. Moderate drinking is generally one to two drinks in a day when alcohol is consumed. Smart habits like exercising, eating a healthy diet and quitting smoking far surpass any potential heart health benefits from drinking red wine. Regarding heart health, it’s best to focus your efforts on those habits and save the wine for special occasions.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Heart

Every person responds to alcohol differently. Various factors influence the short-term effects alcohol can have on your heart. Some of these factors include:

  • Tolerance level: Some people have a higher alcohol tolerance than others. Their higher tolerance enables them to drink more before feeling any effects. Factors that affect your tolerance level include your weight, age, sex and body fat percentage. You may also experience heightened effects if you have not eaten anything before drinking. 
  • Medications: Certain medications may intensify the short-term effects of alcohol on your heart and body. Conversely, alcohol may reduce the effectiveness of some medications. Some medications require you to limit your alcohol consumption, while others may require you to cut out alcohol altogether.
  • Medical conditions: If you have underlying medical conditions like diabetes, liver disease or high blood pressure, alcohol consumption may have harmful or intensified effects on your heart and body. Many individuals with such medical conditions need to abstain from alcohol for health reasons.
  • Consumption amount: The amount you drink in one sitting will also influence the short-term impacts of alcohol on your heart. You are more likely to experience notable effects on your heart if you drink heavily in a short amount of time. 

What Happens to the Heart Right After You Drink That Glass of Wine?

Within minutes of enjoying a glass of your favorite variety, blood vessels in your stomach lining and intestine absorb the alcohol into your bloodstream. From there, it travels to your brain and heart, producing various effects. This same process occurs whether you are drinking a cocktail, pint of beer or flute of champagne. 

As the alcohol enters your bloodstream, it may temporarily increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Increased heart rate and blood pressure are known as tachycardia and hypertension, respectively. Many individuals will not experience a notable change in their blood pressure or heart rate after one drink. However, you are more likely to experience such changes if you take certain medications, have underlying medical conditions or consume a lot of alcohol quickly. 

changes in heart rate can impact heart health over time

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol On the Heart

The long-term effects of alcohol on your heart are more concerning than the short-term impacts. While moderate drinking may or may not have cardioprotective benefits, excessive and prolonged drinking habits are clearly linked to numerous heart and cardiovascular issues. Some conditions related to heavy alcohol use include:

  • Atrial fibrillation: This heart condition occurs when the upper chambers of the heart quiver as it beats, causing an irregular rhythm. 
  • Cardiomyopathy: Cardiomyopathy is a damaged heart muscle. If you have cardiomyopathy, your heart cannot pump blood as efficiently as it should. If cardiomyopathy progresses, it can lead to congestive heart failure. Congestive heart failure is when your heart cannot pump enough blood for your body’s needs. 
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): CAD occurs when cholesterol deposits, known as plaque, build up in the coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart. As the plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, decreasing blood flow. As alcohol use can increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your blood, it can increase your risk of developing CAD. Moreover, the same issues that can lead to CAD can also cause a heart attack
  • Hypertension: Heavy alcohol use is known to cause chronic hypertension, which is a risk factor for both heart attacks and stroke. While alcohol relaxes your blood vessels at moderate drinking levels, it constricts them with prolonged, heavy alcohol consumption. 
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD): Whereas your coronary arteries supply blood to the heart, your peripheral arteries deliver blood from your heart to your limbs and extremities. With PAD, your arms or legs do not receive the blood flow they need to function correctly. Heavy alcohol consumption can cause PAD by increasing triglyceride levels in your blood, contributing to fatty deposits in your peripheral arteries. 
  • Stroke: Heavy alcohol consumption also increases your risk of stroke. One study showed that people who average more than two drinks per day increase their risk of stroke by 34%, compared with those who have less than half a drink per day.

Many of the cardiovascular conditions that heavy alcohol use puts you at risk for are connected. For example, atrial fibrillation often occurs because prolonged alcohol use weakens your heart muscle. Heavy alcohol use can lead to atrial fibrillation because it also causes cardiomyopathy. Furthermore, cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation increase your risk of having a stroke. Since cardiomyopathy harms your circulation, blood can pool in the heart’s atriums and clot. If a blood clot lodges in an artery within the brain, an ischemic stroke can occur. 

Are You Concerned About Your Heart Health?

If you are concerned about your heart health, we have several blogs on our website to help you make heart-healthy choices. From learning the best exercises for heart health and foods to prevent heart disease to finding out how smoking and your family history affect your risk of heart disease, we have resources to help you optimize your heart health. In addition to reading our blogvisit your cardiologist today to inform them of your concerns. If you’d like to learn more about our practice, read our providers’ bios.

This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you need cardiovascular care, please call us at 832-644-8930.

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