Alcohol and Heart Health: What You Should Know
The good news: You might be. Research consistently shows that low to moderate alcohol use may be cardioprotective.
The bad news: Habitual drinking – even when you don’t drink much in one sitting – can also create problems for your heart. This is especially the case if you have, or you’re at risk for, atrial fibrillation.
How Alcohol Benefits Heart Health
Studies repeatedly show an association between good heart health and regular, light-to-moderate drinking (up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men). A review published in 2020 in Nutrients points to some this research, noting that low amounts of alcohol consumption may:
- Decrease inflammation
- Stabilize arterial plaque
- Increase HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol)
- Reduce blood clots
- Reduce hypertension
These are some of the factors that help explain why light drinkers tend to have a decreased risk for coronary artery disease, heart failure and stroke.
Given these benefits, it seems like a glass of wine with dinner makes as much sense as a side of broccoli. But despite all this good news, alcohol – unlike broccoli – can also put your heart health at risk.
How much you drink could be the difference between slightly improved heart health and significantly worse heart health.
Both heavy drinking and binge drinking contribute to worse heart health. For men, heavy drinking usually means about 15 drinks or more per week. For women, it’s eight or more per week. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in about two hours if you’re a man, four or more if you’re a woman.
Heavy drinking and binge drinking are both considered excessive alcohol consumption, which can threaten your cardiovascular health via:
- Atrial fibrillation
- Left ventricular hypertrophy (a thickening of part of the heart wall)
- High blood pressure
- High triglycerides
Of course, outside of heart risks, heavy drinking contributes to a host of other health problems, including cancer, depression and liver damage.
Alcohol and A-fib
Atrial fibrillation, also called a-fib, is a heart condition that doesn’t mix well with alcohol in any amount, according to a 2016 review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
A-fib is an irregular heart rate that increases your risk of stroke, heart failure, and other heart problems. Drinking alcohol increases your risk for a-fib. It also contributes to health problems that make you more likely to get a-fib, such left ventricular hypertrophy and obstructive sleep apnea.
How much alcohol increases your risk? The review article suggests it doesn’t take much: Habitual light-to-moderate drinking, meaning less than 14 drinks per week, could put you in the danger zone. But experts primarily associate an increased risk of a-fib with binge drinking.
How much you can safely drink depends on a lot of factors, including age, health risks, and preferences. Your MDVIP-affiliated physician will probably know better than anyone exactly how much alcohol you can drink. So, before you open your next bottle of wine – or decide to abstain completely – give your doc a call.