Nutrition / Food

Alcohol and Heart Health: Is It Helping or Hurting?

Does drinking alcohol hurt or help your health? Here’s what we know.

When it comes to alcohol and heart health, it’s a double-edged sword. The occasional glass of wine might be good for you. However, if you imbibe too much, you’re putting yourself at risk for high blood pressure, heart failure, or even stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., so it’s important to know whether or not your after-work cocktail hurts more than it helps. We break down the connection between alcohol and heart health and explain why a moderate approach to drinking is your best bet.

Drinking alcohol is linked to higher risk of heart disease. . .

“While the information regarding the effect of alcohol on heart health may seem confusing at best and contradictory at worse, the facts lead to an overall negative correlation between alcohol and heart health,” explains Dr. Christopher Hollingsworth, general and endovascular surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates. “A daily glass of red wine provides some benefits that can be considered beneficial to heart health. [However] excessive consumption of alcohol is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, as well as a variety of other ailments.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, or stroke. It can also contribute to a condition called cardiomyopathy, which is a disorder that affects your heart muscle. A 2017 Journal of the American College of Cardiology study concurs. It notes that abusing alcohol increases the likelihood of suffering from a heart attack, congestive heart failure, or atrial fibrillation. So, yes, research is indeed mixed—and positive findings indicate a few perks. But no experts or studies suggest that people should drink alcohol in order to prevent heart disease.

. . . But to some extent, it can also protect your heart.

That said, certain benefits do exist, primarily regarding wine consumption with an eye to moderate drinking as a whole. One study suggests two drinks or less per day can promote molecular changes in your body that reduce your risk of heart disease. Another indicates that alcohol consumption might lower the risk of coronary artery disease. Harvard researchers also agree that your chances of experiencing cardiovascular disease might be lowered anywhere from 25-40 percent thanks to alcohol consumption. And moderate drinkers are 30-35 percent less likely to have a heart attack than non-drinkers.

But experts warn that any positive relationships between heart health and booze are conditional at best. “Studies on wine, particularly red wine, explore the potential benefits of components such as flavonoids and other antioxidants in reducing heart disease risk,” Dr. Hollingsworth says. “Resveratrol, a compound found in alcoholic beverages, may inhibit clot formation and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. But [Resveratrol] is also found in other foods such as grapes, red grape juice, peanuts and some berries. Wine consumption has also been known to show a small increase in HDL cholesterol. However, regular physical activity is another effective way to raise HDL cholesterol and [is] more beneficial to overall heart health.”

Dr. Jarret Patton, a physician based in Pennsylvania, agrees. “In all, the small potential benefit of drinking alcohol by raising the ‘good cholesterol’ HDLs and providing antioxidants [can] be obtained in other ways besides drinking alcohol,” he says. “You can gain better improvement in HDLs from regular exercise, and the same antioxidants could come from grape juice.”

Why moderation is key.

So, what is a “moderate” amount of alcohol? It’s complicated—alcohol researchers don’t have a universally accepted standard drink definition. Most point to the American Heart Association guidelines as a rule of thumb. These recommend one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men. Drinking more than this can lead to high blood pressure, says Dr. Patton, which significantly worsens heart health.

“Heavy drinking not only affects cardiac function, it can also have a negative impact on immune capacity, blood clot formation, and surgical stress responses,” Dr. Hollingsworth says. “People who drink two or three [alcoholic] drinks per day suffer more complications and infection after surgery. Even short periods of binge drinking, perhaps even a single session, seem to reduce immune system efficiency for a time.”

Watch portion sizes, too. Dr. Hollingsworth likes to remind people that one drink is 1.5 ounces of liquor, four ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer. Drinks can add up quickly if you’re not paying attention, particularly in bars and restaurants. Finally, try to view alcohol as an indulgence to enjoy versus the norm for daily life.

“Wine or other limited amounts of alcohol can help you relax, which can be beneficial to overall heart health,” concludes Dr. Hollingsworth. “This leads to the possibility that the correlation may be more due to other lifestyle factors rather than alcohol consumption alone. Drinking in moderation may be considered relatively safe or somewhat beneficial. But leading an active healthy lifestyle has a much greater positive impact on heart health.”

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol for your health.

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