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Alcohol and Health

What Does Alcohol Do to Your Blood?

July 21, 2023
11 min read
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Written by
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.
July 21, 2023
11 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.
July 21, 2023
11 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.
July 21, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 21, 2023
11 min read

Alcohol is a staple in most of our social events — birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, company happy hours. While it can be consumed responsibly, it's crucial to understand its potential impact on your body, particularly your blood. 

Yup, you read that right — alcohol can negatively affect our health in numerous ways due to its presence in our bloodstream. To avoid these adverse outcomes, it’s important to understand what’s going on so that we can take preventative measures and drink mindfully. We don’t often think about our blood, but it’s constantly working to support us, and it deserves some care.

The Science Behind Alcohol and Blood

When we have a drink of alcohol (ethanol), a psychoactive drug, we are altering our entire body, including our blood. When we consume alcohol, it enters our bloodstream through our stomach and small intestine. Once in the bloodstream, it can affect nearly every bodily system, including the heart and blood vessels.

Let’s explore what’s going on in greater detail. 

1. Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) is a metric used to determine the level of alcohol present within an individual's bloodstream. This value is often used by law enforcement officials as a quantitative measure in cases of suspected drunk driving to ascertain the degree of alcohol-induced impairment. A higher BAC not only signifies a greater amount of alcohol in a person's system but also correlates with a higher level of intoxication — even if we still think we feel fine. This, in turn, can lead to exacerbated physical and cognitive impairment, including poor motor control, reduced decision-making ability, and potentially dangerous alterations in behavior.

2. Alcohol and Blood Pressure

Another thing many of us don’t think about regularly is our blood pressure. Alcohol can elevate our blood pressure, even if we’re generally healthy. Regular heavy drinking can lead to long-term blood pressure issues, requiring the need for medical intervention to avoid long-term complications. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, which are among the leading causes of death globally. Increasing our blood pressure by consuming alcohol puts us at risk.

Diagram about alcohol’s effects on our blood

3. Alcohol and Veins

Alcohol, particularly in large quantities, acts as a vasodilator, leading to the expansion of blood vessels throughout the body. This effect causes a temporary sensation of warmth and a visible flushing or reddening of the skin, often perceived as a harmless or even pleasurable effect of alcohol. 

However, this dilation forces the heart to pump harder to circulate blood through these larger vessels, increasing the cardiac workload. Continual heavy drinking can maintain this increased cardiac load, which over time, can result in high blood pressure, heart muscle damage, and other significant cardiovascular issues.

4. Alcohol and the Heart

Chronic heavy drinking can lead to a condition known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a condition wherein the myocardium or heart muscle weakens and eventually fails to pump blood efficiently. The persistent exposure to alcohol leads to a toxic effect on the heart muscle cells, resulting in their dilatation and weakening. 

As a consequence, the heart cannot distribute enough blood throughout the body, leading to potential organ damage due to lack of oxygen and nutrients. The resultant symptoms can range from shortness of breath and fatigue due to inadequate oxygen supply, to swelling in the legs and feet owing to fluid buildup, a condition known as edema.

5. Alcohol and Blood Clots

Alcohol can also influence our blood's clotting ability. If you’ve ever gotten injured after drinking, you may have wondered whether alcohol makes you bleed more. After only 30 grams, or two standard drinks, alcohol interferes with the body's natural blood clotting mechanism, causing it to either clot too much or not enough. It may lead to thrombosis, where blood clots form in the arteries, thereby disrupting the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart and potentially resulting in a heart attack. Conversely, alcohol can also thin the blood, which could precipitate a hemorrhagic stroke where a weakened blood vessel bursts and bleeds in the brain.

For those taking blood-thinning medications, the relationship between alcohol and your health is even more intricate. Blood thinners, designed to prevent clotting, can interact unpredictably with alcohol. The alcohol's blood-thinning properties can exacerbate the medication's effects, potentially leading to excessive or prolonged bleeding from minor injuries or surgeries. Always consult a healthcare provider before consuming alcohol while on blood thinners.

6. Alcohol and Red Blood Cells

Alcohol, particularly when consumed heavily over an extended period, can have a damaging effect on the body's ability to produce red blood cells, vital components that transport oxygen to various tissues and organs. 

The toxic metabolite from alcohol, acetaldehyde, directly inhibits the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow and damages their functionality, impairing their oxygen-carrying capacity. This can lead to a condition known as alcoholic anemia, characterized by a decreased number of red blood cells in the body. Consequently, the body's tissues do not receive adequate oxygen, leading to fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms, hindering the body's overall functioning.

Tips for Healthy Alcohol Consumption

Understanding the effects of alcohol on your blood can be a wake-up call, but it doesn't necessitate complete abstinence. Here are some tips for healthier alcohol consumption:

  • Drink in moderation: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a maximum of one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Remember, these are upper limits, not recommendations. It's always acceptable to drink less or not at all. Alternating alcoholic drinks with glasses of water, sipping slowly, and practicing drinking can all help us moderate our drinking.
  • Choose lower-alcohol drinks: Alcoholic beverages vary in their alcohol content. Beer and wine generally have lower alcohol content than spirits. Opting for drinks with a lower alcohol content can help you maintain a lower BAC.
  • Stay hydrated: Alcohol can cause dehydration, which can elevate your BAC and exacerbate hangovers. Consuming water alongside your alcoholic beverages can help you stay hydrated.
  • Don't drink on an empty stomach: Food slows down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream. Eating a meal before you start drinking can help keep your BAC lower.
  • Avoid mixing alcohol with medication: Many medications can interact negatively with alcohol, increasing side effects and sometimes creating dangerous situations. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before mixing alcohol with any medication.
  • Take regular alcohol-free days: Giving your body a break from alcohol can help your liver recover and reduce your overall alcohol intake. Try to have several alcohol-free days each week.

Stay Healthy, Stay Safe

While limited, mindful alcohol consumption can be part of a balanced lifestyle, it's important to understand its effects on your body, particularly your blood. By drinking in moderation, choosing lower-alcohol drinks, staying hydrated, not drinking on an empty stomach, avoiding mixing alcohol with medication, and taking regular alcohol-free days, you can enjoy alcohol responsibly while minimizing its impact on your health. Remember, it's always okay to seek help if you're struggling with alcohol use! The Reframe app is a valuable tool for anyone looking to understand and manage their relationship with alcohol.

Ready To Make a Change? Reframe Can Help!

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 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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