Alcohol and its Effects on the Heart
Alcohol can have a detrimental impact on your heart and blood vessels (formally known as your cardiovascular system). People who drink alcohol should be aware that the effects of alcohol on the heart can vary depending on different factors but can include coronary heart disease, cardiomyopathy, hypertension, arrythmias, and stroke.1
Abstract understanding how alcohol can affect one’s cardiovascular system, what signs and symptoms to be aware of, and how to locate effective alcohol addiction treatment can be essential for making healthy life choices.
Why Does Alcohol Impact Cardiovascular Health
Alcohol’s effects on the heart can occur for different reasons and can be influenced by behavioral, genetic, and biological factors, but the amount and frequency of alcohol use appears to play the largest role, according to research.1 For example, heavy alcohol consumption (4 or more standard drinks per day) and binge drinking (meaning 5 standard drinks on a single occasion for men and more than 4 standard drinks for women) is associated with detrimental effects.1
Additional research published in 2022 explains that there is no amount of alcohol that is completely safe for the cardiovascular system, but the specific degree to which the effects can manifest will depend on intake.2 Light alcohol use (0-8.4 drinks per week) was associated with a smaller increased risk to the cardiovascular system, with heavier amounts increasing the magnitude of risk (but it’s important to note that study participants in the light drinking group also tended to have heathier overall lifestyle habits compared to those who drank more heavily).2
However, the intake and regularity of one’s alcohol consumption is not the only factor in determining how alcohol can affect the cardiovascular system.
The Risks and Effects of Excessive Alcohol Use on the Heart
Although alcohol use and its effects can vary from person-to-person, most research has shown a link between the effect of alcohol on the heart and the development of cardiovascular problems, such as:
- Blood pressure changes and hypertension.3
- Coronary heart disease.4
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack). 3
- Heart failure.2
Alcohol-Related Coronary Heart Disease (Heart Attack)
Coronary heart disease is a term that refers to different types of heart diseases that occur when your arteries are unable to supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart.5 A common form of coronary heart disease that is often related to alcohol use is atherosclerosis, which causes hardening of the arteries, often due to increased levels of cholesterol but also the buildup of other substances, such as fat or calcium.5 This buildup can partially or totally block the arteries, which can reduce or completely stop blood flow to the heart potentially leading to a heart attack.5
Alcohol can also negatively impact the endothelium, a thin membrane that lines the blood vessels and heart that helps regulate vascular functioning, and endothelial dysfunction can potentially lead to atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular problems.1
Cardiomyopathy is a term that refers to different conditions that cause thickening, stiffening, thinning, or stretching of the heart muscle, which negatively impacts the heart’s ability to pump blood.6 Some of the symptoms of cardiomyopathy include:6
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing.
- Swelling in the ankles and legs.
- Irregular heartbeat or palpitations.
- Syncope, or fainting or briefly passing out.
As mentioned above, alcohol increases oxidative stress, which is likely a key contributor to the development of alcohol cardiomyopathy.1 People with alcohol-related cardiomyopathy have diastolic or systolic dysfunction and sometimes also have symptoms of heart failure.1 Alcohol cardiomyopathy, is commonly found in people who are long-term heavy drinkers, but the exact amount and duration of alcohol use that leads to cardiomyopathy is unknown.1
Hypertension, or blood pressure that is higher than normal, can be a significant risk factor for the development of other cardiovascular conditions, including stroke, heart attack, and different forms of heart disease.7 According to the most recent guidelines, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg .7 One study found that more than 20 g of alcohol per day (or 1-2 drinks a day) resulted in a significantly increased risk of hypertension in women, and 31-40 g per day was associated with an increased risk of hypertension in men.1
Research has found that alcohol use causes temporary increases in blood pressure; some data indicates that this increase can range from 4-7 mmHg for systolic BP and 4-6 mmHg for diastolic BP.1 Over time, this can increase the risk of chronic hypertension.1 Additionally, research has found that binge drinking and heavy drinking raises blood pressure, both in people with and without hypertension before consuming alcohol.1, 3, 4
Arrythmia means an irregular heartbeat, which can mean that your heart either beats too slowly, too quickly, or with an irregular rhythm.8 Alcohol weakens the heart muscle and negatively impacts its ability to contract, which can lead to arrythmias, and may especially increase the risk for very fast or irregular rhythms.1
One particularly dangerous form of arrhythmia known as atrial fibrillation is strongly associated with heavy drinking and binge drinking.1 Atrial fibrillation can lead to different adverse cardiovascular effects including stroke and sudden death.1
Alcohol-Related Stroke Risk
Alcohol consumption may increase the risk of stroke, but studies have had somewhat different conclusions regarding the amounts that can impact this risk.1 In particular, one study found that heavy alcohol use (defined as 60 grams of more of alcohol in this study) was associated with a higher risk of stroke compared to people who did not drink alcohol.1 Another study found that both high and moderate alcohol intake were associated with increased risk of stroke, but low intake was not associated with stroke.9
Although it’s not entirely clear as to why alcohol can increase the risk of stroke, researchers believe it may have to do with alcohol’s effect on different cardiovascular processes, including increased blood pressure, changes in cholesterol, changes to inflammation, and the development of atrial fibrillation or other cardiac arrhythmias.9
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Alcohol addiction can cause many problems not just for the cardiovascular system but for the whole body. Luckily, evidence-based addiction treatment can be lead to positive health outcomes Effective treatment generally involves a combination of medication and evidence-based behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and participation in support groups.10
If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol use or are concerned that alcohol may be negatively impacting your cardiovascular system, you can find treatment in a variety of ways, such as using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s FindTreatment.gov database to search for rehabs near you, or consulting your doctor and asking for treatment referrals.
In addition, addiction helplines can also be a powerful online resource. Addiction helplines, like the one operated by American Addiction Centers, are 24/7 phone lines designed to help those seeking addiction treatment. Our compassionate staff stands ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment, help find suitable rehab centers, and help verify your insurance coverage. Don’t delay, call us today at to get started.
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