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Alcohol and Health

The Link Between Alcohol Use and Stroke Risk: Can Excessive Drinking Cause a Stroke?

August 7, 2023
12 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.
August 7, 2023
12 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.
August 7, 2023
12 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.
August 7, 2023
12 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 7, 2023
12 min read

Many of us have asked this question: can alcohol cause a stroke? It's a scary topic, but it doesn't have to be a downer. While science shows that drinking can, in fact, lead to a stroke  (especially for those who drink regularly), understanding the connection puts the power back in your hands and might serve as a bit of extra motivation to start considering cutting back or quitting. We’re not talking about a major overhaul here — even the smallest changes in our routine can make a huge difference. Let’s find out more!

The Science of Stroke: Ischemic (Paralytic Stroke) vs. Hemorrhagic Stroke

A detailed view of a human brain with a highlighted section representing the brain stroke

While a glass of wine or a pint of beer might seem harmless, when it comes to stroke, it's the long-term effects we need to worry about. There are two main types of stroke: ischemic — also known as paralytic stroke — caused by a blockage preventing blood flow to the brain, and hemorrhagic, due to bleeding within the brain. Ischemic stroke is by far the most common, accounting for about 87% of all cases. 

Recognizing the symptoms of a stroke can be vital for timely treatment. Here are the common signs:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness. This is often felt on one side of the body, particularly in the face, arm, or leg.
  • Confusion. We might suddenly have trouble in understanding, speaking, or forming words. Someone experiencing a stroke may seem confused or slur their speech.
  • Trouble seeing. Vision may become blurred or blackened in one or both eyes, or we might see double.
  • Difficulty walking. A loss of balance, coordination, or dizziness that comes on suddenly could be a sign of a stroke.
  • Severe headache. A sudden, severe headache with no known cause can be a warning sign.
  • Face drooping. If one side of the face droops or feels numb, and the smile is uneven, it may be a sign of a stroke.

Remember, these symptoms often appear suddenly, and they may occur together. Time is a key factor in treating a stroke, so acting quickly can make a significant difference in recovery. Many people use the acronym "FAST" to remember these signs:

  • F: Face drooping
  • A: Arm weakness
  • S: Speech difficulty
  • T: Time to call emergency services
Alcohol and Stroke

Alcohol and Stroke

Unfortunately, alcohol can increase our risk for both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke. Here’s how:

  • Blood Pressure. Alcohol is known to increase blood pressure — a major risk factor for stroke. The exact reasons are still being studied, but it's believed that alcohol affects the sympathetic nervous system, disrupts blood vessel function, and alters the balance of certain hormones involved in blood pressure regulation. High blood pressure, in turn, causes the arteries to narrow and harden, limiting blood flow to the brain and making the blood vessel walls more susceptible to rupturing.
  • Blood clotting and coagulation. Alcohol can interfere with platelet function, leading to changes in the blood clotting process and causing excessive clumping. These clots can travel to the brain, blocking blood flow and leading to an ischemic stroke.
  • Liver function. The liver is responsible for producing proteins that help with blood clotting. Excessive drinking can damage the liver, reducing its ability to produce these proteins. This imbalance in clotting factors can increase the risk of bleeding, including the bleeding in the brain that causes hemorrhagic stroke.
  • Atrial fibrillation. Chronic heavy drinking may lead to a condition called atrial fibrillation, which increases the risk of stroke by about five times. AFib, as it’s called, is an irregular heartbeat that can cause blood to pool and clot. These clots can then travel to the brain, leading to an ischemic stroke.
  • Impact on cholesterol. Heavy drinking can increase our levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, which contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries and increases the risk of ischemic stroke.

Recent studies confirm the link between alcohol and stroke risk. According to a comprehensive review by Tulane University scientists, consuming 5 or more drinks per day puts us in the “high risk” category when it comes to stroke risk. The scientists conclude that the effect is due to the fact that having more than 2 drinks increases hypertension — a direct contributing factor to stroke.

The Ripple Effects

Those of us who are younger (or cockier) may shrug off these risks, thinking, "Okay, so I might get a stroke, but I'm willing to take that chance." However, it’s important to remember that a stroke can bring a tidal wave of problems that can drastically change your life in ways you might never have anticipated.

  • Long-term disabilities. Strokes can cause lasting impairments, including paralysis, speech difficulties, and loss of vision. These disabilities can significantly alter daily life, affecting independence, self-confidence, and overall happiness.
  • Financial strains. Medical treatment for stroke, as well as ongoing care and rehabilitation, can be expensive. These financial strains can add another layer of stress to an already challenging situation.
  • Quality of life. The combined physical, cognitive, emotional, and financial effects of a stroke can drastically impact a person's quality of life. From daily routines to long-term goals, everything can change everything in a flash.
  • Impact on loved ones. A stroke doesn't just affect the individual; it affects the entire family and support network. The need for ongoing care, support, and understanding can place a significant burden on loved ones.

Blood Thinners and Alcohol

When talking about the link between alcohol and stroke, we should also mention one of the most common ways to treat it. Blood thinners, or anticoagulants, are medications that are prescribed to prevent blood clots from forming or growing larger. These medications are critical for those with conditions such as atrial fibrillation, deep vein thrombosis, or people who have undergone certain surgeries that may increase the risk of clotting.

The interplay between blood thinners and alcohol, however, is a tricky one. Alcohol can have an anticoagulant effect by itself, which means that when combined with blood thinning medications, the risk of bleeding can increase.

Moreover, alcohol can affect the metabolism of blood thinner medications, potentially decreasing their effectiveness or, conversely, leading to an increased risk of bleeding. It’s always crucial to ask healthcare providers for advice!

Ways To Reduce Your Stroke Risk

So, can alcohol cause a stroke? As we can see, the link is there, and we shouldn’t ignore it. But is there anything you can do to stay safe and lower your risk? Absolutely!

  • Gradually reduce your alcohol intake. Start by cutting back on the amount of alcohol you drink. This could mean having fewer drinks per day or choosing certain days to abstain from alcohol altogether. As you re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol, do so in the spirit of curiosity — there’s so much to discover and explore!
  • Stay active. Regular physical activity can help lower your blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight, both of which can reduce your stroke risk.
  • Watch your diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy can help keep your blood pressure in check.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can increase your risk of stroke, and quitting is one of the best things you can do for your health.
  • See your doctor regularly. Regular check-ups can help identify any potential health issues early, giving you the best chance for successful treatment.

Choosing to cut back or quit drinking is a big decision, but it can potentially save your life. It might not always be easy, but remember, every small step towards this goal is a victory. So here's to a healthier you, less alcohol, and a lower risk of stroke!

Protect Your Brain and Body 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.

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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 through the App Store or Google Play 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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