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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect the Heart?

September 14, 2023
30 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 14, 2023
30 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 14, 2023
30 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 14, 2023
30 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 14, 2023
30 min read

Ever had that chest-pounding feeling after a few too many drinks? While we often associate drinking with the warmth and laughter of celebrations, there's a sneakier side to it. Alcohol's effect on our heart can be subtle and easy to miss. Yet, it’s essential to understand it so we can catch any problems early and address them before they get bigger. 

From throwing off our heart rate and blood pressure to messing with our cholesterol levels, interfering with nutrient absorption and throwing a wrench in our weight management efforts, alcohol can do a number on our heart health. What are alcohol’s effects on the heart, and what are some signs of heart disease from alcohol? Is wine good for your heart, or is it a myth? Let’s explore the science behind alcohol’s effects on the heart and learn some ways to protect our cardiovascular health!

The Rhythm of Life: Does Alcohol Increase Heart Rate?

Our heart's primary job is to pump blood throughout the body. For that, our body needs a consistent rhythm. This rhythm is maintained by electrical signals that keep the heartbeats regular and coordinated. It’s a precise system, fine-tuned over millennia.

a person drinking alcohol

Just a few drinks in, alcohol can cause irregular heart rhythms by interfering with the heart’s electrical signals. This condition, known as atrial fibrillation (or AFib for short), can feel like our heart is fluttering or racing. It’s caused by the heart’s two upper chambers — the atria — beating chaotically and irregularly.

While a few beats off the track might not sound concerning, over time, it can lead to a range of heart-related complications. People with AFib can experience dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. AFib can even increase the risk of strokes, as it may allow blood to pool in the heart, forming clots that can travel to the brain.

The term “holiday heart syndrome,” which is often used to describe heart rhythm glitches after a heavy drinking session, suggests that the heartbeat issue might only arise after an occasional binge. But consistent drinking can also elevate the risk of developing chronic AFib that develops gradually over time and doesn’t simply go away once we stop. 

And while our heart is a robust and resilient organ, it prefers its rhythm undisturbed. So being aware of how alcohol can change this tune is crucial. 

Rising Pressure

Blood pressure is the force exerted by our blood against the walls of our arteries. It's typically measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and is expressed in terms of two measurements, which (when all is well) hover around 120/80 mmHg. The first number represents the systolic pressure, and the second number represents the diastolic pressure:

  • Systolic pressure. This is the higher of the two numbers and represents the force exerted on artery walls when the heart contracts (or beats).
  • Diastolic pressure. This is the lower number and represents the force exerted on artery walls when the heart is at rest between beats.

When we consume alcohol — even in moderation — our blood vessels temporarily relax and expand due to an effect known as vasodilation. While that might sound relaxing, the body's way of compensating is by increasing the heart rate, and voila! Our blood pressure rises.

One might think, “Okay, so it rises a bit and then gets back to normal, right?” Not so fast. Regular alcohol consumption can keep our blood pressure elevated longer. If we continue down this path, chronic high blood pressure — also known as hypertension — can sneak up on us.

Elevated blood pressure isn't just numbers on a scale: research shows that over the long haul it can lead to a domino effect of health issues by adding unnecessary stress on the heart. From damaging arteries, reducing blood flow, and even setting the stage for heart attacks and strokes, it ups the risk for serious heart disease.

The occasional toast at a friend's wedding or a glass of wine at a family gathering might not send our readings skyrocketing, but it's essential to understand how our body reacts. Everyone is unique; some might see a minor blip in their readings, while others might notice a more pronounced hike.

Is Wine Good For Your Heart?

Speaking of wine, there’s a question that many have asked: Is wine good for your heart? For years, many assumed that it was, pointing to scientific studies that touted the antioxidants and polyphenols present in wine. However, recent research shows that the picture isn’t quite so clear. While wine does, indeed, have these health-boosting compounds, they’re also present in grape or pomegranate juice, so it’s certainly not the only source. And the alcohol in wine might actually tip the balance in the unhealthy direction, making it less than ideal. 

Know Your (Cholesterol) Numbers

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that's found in your blood. While it often gets a bad rap, our body needs it to build healthy cells — it’s all a matter of balance.

The cholesterol in our bodies is carried by lipoproteins — compounds with lipid and protein parts. They come in two types: LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Think of LDL as the "less desirable" one, which can lead to fatty buildups in our arteries. HDL, on the other hand, is the "helpful" variety: it carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s processed and removed.

When we introduce alcohol into the system, things can start to shift. Moderate alcohol consumption might raise levels of HDL cholesterol (that's the good kind). However, this theory is still debated among scientists, so “might” is the key word here. Moreover, alcohol is known to raise the levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood, leading to clogged arteries and decreased blood flow. Think of it like a traffic jam in the cardiovascular system. Over time, the elevation can cause hardening and narrowing of the arteries and heightens the risk of heart disease.

Weighty Matters

Those fancy cocktails and beers aren't just high in spirits; they’re packed with calories, too! With 7 calories per gram, alcohol comes in second only to fat in terms of calorie density. And unlike food, these are empty calories, offering no nutritional value.

As a result, even a small amount of alcohol can substantially increase our daily caloric intake. Consistent alcohol consumption can lead to weight gain, which, in turn, places added strain on the heart. It’s like carrying extra luggage every day — the heart doesn't appreciate the heavy lifting!

And while calories certainly play a part, there's more to the relationship between alcohol and weight gain. For one thing, booze can act as an appetite stimulant. Ever noticed feeling peckish after a few drinks? Alcohol can reduce our inhibitions, making that extra serving of nachos or slice of pizza seem all the more enticing. And as most of us know, snacking decisions made under the influence aren't always the healthiest.

Moreover, it gets even more complex when we dive into metabolism. When we consume alcohol, your body prioritizes breaking it down because, from a biological standpoint, it views alcohol as a toxin. As a result, other metabolic processes, like fat burning, get pushed to the back burner. This slowdown in metabolism can lead to fat storage, contributing further to weight gain. At the same time, alcohol can also impede the absorption of vital nutrients, leading to inefficiencies in processing and storing calories.

Finally, alcohol impacts our sleep. While alcohol might make us feel drowsy, it often disrupts the quality of sleep we get. Poor sleep can impact hunger hormones, potentially leading to increased appetite and — once again — weight gain.

The Weakened Heart: Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Over time, excessive drinking can lead to a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is a condition that weakens the heart muscle and makes it harder to pump blood to the rest of the body. Over time, cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure — a serious condition that undermines the heart’s ability to meet the body's needs for blood and oxygen.

There are various types of cardiomyopathy, but the one specifically linked to alcohol is called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. As the name suggests, it's a result of prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption. In the early stages, alcoholic cardiomyopathy might not show any noticeable symptoms. But as the condition progresses, signs of heart disease from alcohol may begin to emerge:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the legs and feet
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness or fainting

One silver lining here is that early detection and action can halt or even reverse some of the effects of alcoholic cardiomyopathy. The most crucial step for that is watching our drinking habits. Combine this with a balanced diet, regular exercise, and regular check-ups, and you're setting the stage for heart recovery!

Reduced Nutrient Absorption

We’ve all heard the saying “You are what you eat.” But there's a crucial caveat to that: you are actually what you absorb. Our bodies are like intricate puzzles: each piece plays a vital role and can only do so if the right nutrients are available. The body thrives on a variety of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, proteins, and more. These powerhouses ensure that everything from our brain function to our metabolism works like a well-oiled machine. 

And when alcohol enters the equation, the process of nutrient absorption can get a little complicated. Research shows that alcohol can interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients such as Vitamin B1 — a deficiency that can lead to a heart disorder known as beriberi, which affects the heart’s ability to function properly. Here's how it happens:

  • Stomach interruption. Alcohol can cause a decrease in the production of digestive enzymes essential for breaking down food particles so that they can be absorbed. Without them, absorption becomes inefficient.
  • Liver distraction. The liver is a multitasking superstar in charge of processing and storing certain vitamins and minerals. When alcohol is in our system, the liver gets preoccupied with getting rid of it ASAP, causing nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin D, and certain B vitamins to be stored in smaller amounts or even discarded.
  • Inflammation and damage. Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to inflammation and damage in the stomach and intestines. This compromised environment can further hinder the absorption of nutrients such as zinc and folate.

While it's clear that heavy drinking can be a roadblock to optimal nutrient absorption, we have the power to change the narrative by being mindful of alcohol intake, eating a balanced diet, and, perhaps, adding some supportive supplements (after consulting a healthcare professional, of course). Remember: feeding the body is crucial, but ensuring it absorbs what it needs is the real game-changer!

Heart Disease: The Long-Term Plot

As we can see, heart disease isn't just one condition but a collection of issues affecting the heart's structure and functions. It encompasses conditions like coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems, and heart defects. The heart, being central to our wellbeing, requires optimal care, and anything that jeopardizes its health demands our attention.

It's worth noting once again that while some earlier studies have suggested potential heart benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, most have been debunked due to flaws in experimental design. And when it comes to excessive drinking, the potential risks far outweigh any speculative benefits.

Tips To Keep Your Heart Healthy

Flipping the Script

The beauty of understanding heart disease and alcohol's role is that you have the power to rewrite the story. Here’s a list of specific action steps to keep that heart perky and pumping:

  • Stay informed. Knowledge is power! Stay updated on the latest findings regarding alcohol consumption and its effects on heart health.
  • Limit or quit. Consider setting a limit for yourself. If quitting is your goal, seek out support groups or apps like Reframe to help you on this journey.
  • Hydrate. Replace that glass of wine with water. Hydration is key to supporting overall health and flushing toxins from the body.
  • Exercise regularly. Your heart loves a good workout! A brisk walk, a dance session, or even yoga can do wonders.
  • Nutritious diet. Amp up your diet with heart-healthy foods like omega-rich fish, nuts, and lots of veggies.
  • Regular check-ups. Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol. Regular check-ups with your doctor can help identify potential issues early on.
  • Stress management. Find healthy ways to de-stress. Maybe it’s a movie night, a book, or meditation. Stress can exacerbate heart-related issues, so keep it at bay.

The Heart of the Matter

Remember, making the right choices for our heart's health is crucial. After all, that’s what keeps the show running! 

Every choice we make, from what we eat to how we manage stress, reverberates throughout our entire body, with the heart feeling these echoes profoundly. Recognizing and addressing the effects of alcohol is a pivotal step — not just for our heart but for the holistic harmony of our body and mind. By making informed, positive changes in our relationship with alcohol, we're not only fortifying our heart but setting the stage for a life brimming with vitality, vigor, and joy. Remember: nurturing the heart isn't just about adding years to our life, but life to our years!

Summary FAQs

1. How does alcohol influence our heartbeat?

Alcohol can disrupt the heart's rhythm, leading to conditions like atrial fibrillation. This can cause the heart to beat in an irregular, often rapid manner, which might not pump blood effectively.

2. Is it true that alcohol can raise blood pressure?

Absolutely. Regular heavy drinking can elevate blood pressure levels, putting strain on the heart and increasing the risk of heart diseases.

3. How does alcohol interact with cholesterol?

Excessive alcohol can boost levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood. High triglyceride levels, combined with other factors, can contribute to fatty buildups in the arteries, potentially leading to heart problems.

4. Can drinking alcohol make me gain weight?

Yes, alcohol is calorie-dense, and those extra calories can add up. Additionally, alcohol can stimulate your appetite, potentially leading to overeating, and impair metabolic processes that burn fat.

5. What's cardiomyopathy and its relation to alcohol?

Cardiomyopathy refers to diseases of the heart muscle that can hinder its ability to pump blood efficiently. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a result of prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption, leading to a weakened heart.

6. Does alcohol affect nutrient absorption in our body?

It does. Alcohol can reduce the production of digestive enzymes, distract the liver from processing certain vitamins and minerals, and even cause inflammation in the stomach and intestines, all of which can impede the absorption of vital nutrients.

7. Can I reduce my risk of heart disease by limiting alcohol?

Certainly. While some studies suggest potential heart benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, the risks of excessive drinking, like high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, and artery blockages, make limiting or abstaining from alcohol a heart-healthy choice.

Protect Your Heart and Start Your Journey With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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