Alcohol and your Heart

Drinking alcohol to excess can have serious consequences for your short and long-term health. As well as affecting your liver, did you know that too much alcohol can also have a negative impact on your heart?
There’s no harm in enjoying an occasional drink in moderation, but drinking to excess can have a serious impact on your health. Cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease and stroke, are the leading cause of death worldwide, and too much alcohol plays a role in this. In fact, alcohol can affect your heart in a variety of ways.

Alcohol weakens your heart muscle

Long-term, heavy drinking can weaken your heart muscle. This causes a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. When your heart is weakened, it cannot contract properly. It becomes unable to pump enough blood around your body. This results in symptoms such as shortness of breath, tiredness, an irregular heartbeat and swelling in your legs and feet. In severe cases, it can lead to heart failure.

Alcohol affects how quickly your heart beats

Binge drinking and regular long-term drinking can affect how quickly your heart beats. Alcohol can cause the heart to either beat too quickly or beat irregularly. These irregularities are called arrhythmias and can have serious consequences for your health. It’s not just regular excessive drinking that can trigger arrhythmia. You are also at risk if you suddenly drink to excess, especially if you don’t usually drink alcohol.

Alcohol can cause high blood pressure and strokes

Binge drinking puts you at risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension. This occurs when your blood vessels stiffen, causing the pressure inside your veins and arteries to rise. Heavy alcohol consumption also triggers the release of certain stress hormones that constrict your blood vessels. This in turn elevates your blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the key risk factors for a heart attack or stroke.

How to reduce your risk

The main thing you can do to reduce the negative impact of alcohol on your heart health is to drink in moderation.
Alcohol guidelines suggest:

  • women shouldn’t regularly drink more than two to three units of alcohol a day
  • men shouldn’t regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day

One unit of alcohol is 10ml. Depending on the size of the glass and the strength of the alcohol, a pint and a half of 4 percent beer is three to four units, or a third of a pint of strong beer (ABV 5 to 6 percent) is one unit. A glass of wine is between 1.5 and 3 units. Drinking more than these limits could have a harmful effect on your heart health.
If you’re unsure of the exact alcohol content of a drink, use the alcohol calculator to find out how many units it’s likely to contain.

What is binge drinking?

Binge drinking doesn’t mean you drink alcohol each day, but you:

  • regularly drink alcohol to get drunk
  • drink very quickly
  • regularly drink more than the daily unit recommendations in a single drinking session  

Can alcohol ever benefit your heart?

You may have heard that alcohol can be good for your heart. And in fact, there may be some benefit of enjoying a small drink now and then. Some studies have found that red wine, in particular, could have heart benefits. This may be due to components of red wine, such as antioxidants and flavanoids, which may help prevent the formation of thrombosis, or blood clots.
However, there are only benefits from drinking moderate amounts (one or two units a day). Also, research suggests this benefit may only be applicable to people over the age of 45. It’s not an excuse to drink more than the recommended limits, as excess amounts will cancel out any benefit.
Your heart is designed to last a lifetime. Look after the one you’ve got by drinking in moderation, keeping active, eating a healthy and balanced diet and not smoking.