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Alcohol and Health

What Is the Relationship Between Alcohol and Cholesterol?

September 5, 2023
17 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 5, 2023
17 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 5, 2023
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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 5, 2023
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 5, 2023
17 min read

We’ve likely been warned about the dangers of high cholesterol. We’re cautioned to eat heart-healthy food and get the recommended amount of physical activity in order to keep our cholesterol levels low. But where does alcohol fit into the picture? Does it raise our cholesterol levels, lower them, or do something in between?

In this post, we’ll explore what cholesterol is, why it matters, and how alcohol affects our cholesterol levels. We’ll also offer tips for maintaining healthy cholesterol. Let’s get started!

What Is Cholesterol, Anyway?

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Before we look at how alcohol affects cholesterol levels, it’s helpful to know what cholesterol actually is and why it’s so important. Simply put, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in the cells in our body. While we typically think of cholesterol as “bad,” it actually has many important functions in our body, such as helping cell membranes form protective layers, helping our liver make bile, and supporting our body’s production of certain hormones (such as sex hormones) and vitamin D.

When we talk about cholesterol, there are two main types:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This is the “good” type of cholesterol because it carries cholesterol from other parts of our body back to our liver, which removes it, lowering our risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This is the “bad” type of cholesterol that can build up in the walls of our arteries, causing them to narrow. High LDL cholesterol puts us at risk for health problems, such as heart attack, heart disease, and stroke.

Both HDL and LDL make up what’s called our “total cholesterol”, or the total amount of both good and bad cholesterol in our body.

What’s Considered High Cholesterol?

While our body can naturally get rid of excess cholesterol, sometimes that system doesn’t work as well as it should, or becomes overloaded. As a result, we can have extra cholesterol circulating in our blood: and that’s when we can run into trouble.

Cholesterol levels vary by age, weight, and sex and typically increase over time. Overall, our cholesterol is high if we have a total blood cholesterol of greater than 200 mg/DL.

Generally speaking, since LDL is the “bad” cholesterol, this is the number we want to keep low. For most adults, that means keeping it below 100 mg/dL. HDL cholesterol is good, so this is the number we want to keep high. For men, that means keeping it at least 40 mg/dL; for women, 50 mg/dL.

Does Alcohol Raise Cholesterol?

Now that we have a better understanding of what cholesterol is and why it matters, we can tackle the next question: how does alcohol affect our cholesterol levels? The short answer is that alcohol raises our cholesterol.

But the relationship between alcohol and cholesterol levels is a bit more complicated, as it can depend on our drinking patterns. Let’s take a closer look.

Light to Moderate Alcohol Use

Research indicates that light to moderate alcohol consumption can increase levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Men who drink fewer than 14 alcoholic drinks per week and women who drink fewer than 7 drinks per week all fall into this category.

However, while it’s true that higher HDL levels can be beneficial, the rise from moderate alcohol consumption might not be enough to impact our heart disease risk significantly. Plus, the potential harm that comes from alcohol consumption — including misuse, liver disease, heart disease, and more — outweighs the potential benefits. This is why the American Heart Association suggests skipping the alcohol when it comes to heart health.

Heavy Alcohol Use

Now, when it comes to heavy alcohol consumption — defined as more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than 7 drinks per week for women — things look a bit different. Studies show that heavy drinking is consistently linked to higher levels of LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. It can also raise our triglycerides — another type of fat in the blood. This can be a bad combination, as elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels are closely linked with the development of heart disease and other health issues. High triglyceride levels can also lead to liver and pancreas problems, and contribute to the hardening of arteries (atherosclerosis).

The Role of Genetics in Alcohol and Cholesterol

The relationship between alcohol and cholesterol can also be complicated because of the role of genetics. Our liver enzymes, which vary based on our genetics, can affect how we process both alcohol and cholesterol.

For instance, some people have a genetic disorder that causes abnormal buildup of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. In other words, their liver is unable to recycle the natural supply of cholesterol, leading to an overabundance of cholesterol. Similarly, some people have a deficiency in alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which is an important enzyme that breaks down alcohol’s toxic compounds. Either one of these can worsen alcohol’s effect on cholesterol.

Overall, however, research shows that the more alcohol consumed and the more frequently it’s consumed, the more cholesterol and triglyceride levels go up — and a rise in cholesterol levels is also linked to decline in normal liver function.

Are Some Types of Alcohol Worse Than Others for Cholesterol?

What about the kind of alcohol we drink, does that play a role? It’s a good question. Some studies have noted that there is a positive relationship between red wine and levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

However, this is likely attributed to other beneficial components of wine, such as resveratrol (a heart-friendly antioxidant that gives red wine its color) rather than the alcohol itself. Again, this is why the American Heart Association doesn’t recommend drinking wine for its potential “benefits.”

Overall, there’s not a whole lot of research that suggests whether the type of alcohol we drink—whether beer, wine, or liquor—raises our cholesterol levels more than others. It really seems to come down to the quantity and frequency of drinking.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much? (And Will Quitting Alcohol Lower Cholesterol?)

When it comes to alcohol consumption and cholesterol, moderation is key. As we’ve looked at, the more we drink and more regularly we consume alcohol, the greater our risk for high cholesterol levels.

If we choose to drink, it’s generally recommended that we limit ourselves to fewer than 2 standard drinks per day for men, and less than 1 standard drink per day for women. A standard drink is probably much smaller than we realize: 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces (one shot) of distilled spirits.

Keep in mind that long-term, heavy alcohol consumption is linked to a number of health issues, such as cancer, heart disease, liver disease and more. Even in small amounts, alcohol can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health. So while cutting back or quitting will certainly help lower your cholesterol levels, it will also do wonders for your overall health!

Tips for Maintaining Healthy Cholesterol Levels

Apart from limiting alcohol consumption, there are certain lifestyle changes we can make to support our cholesterol health. In fact, the most common cause of high cholesterol is an unhealthy lifestyle, such as poor eating habits, lack of physical activity, and smoking. Stress can also increase our cholesterol levels.

With that in mind, let’s look at some tips for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

Choose Healthy Foods

Our body makes all of the cholesterol it needs, so we don’t need to obtain cholesterol through foods. In fact, eating lots of foods high in saturated fats and trans fats can contribute to high cholesterol.

Try limiting saturated fats from animal products (such as cheese, fatty meats, and dairy desserts) and tropical oils (like palm oil). Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. This includes things like lean meats, seafood, fat-free or low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

It’s also beneficial to eat foods naturally high in fiber, such as oatmeal, beans, and avocados. These may help prevent and manage high levels of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides, while increasing HDL levels.

Get Moving

A sedentary lifestyle with lots of sitting and little exercise can lower our HDL cholesterol levels. Physical activity is one of the best ways to raise our HDL. Plus, it can help us lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Excess body fat affects how our body uses cholesterol and slows down our body’s ability to remove LDL from our blood.

There are so many things we can do to exercise, from walking and jogging, to swimming, biking, jumping rope, or playing our favorite sport. Try to find something you enjoy and stick with it. Experts recommend getting at least 150 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week. This sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to do it all at once: try breaking it up into 30 minute sessions a day.

It’s also important to stay moving throughout the day. For instance, take the stairs instead of an elevator, park a little further away, take a walk during your lunch break, or do jumping jacks while watching your favorite show.

Don’t Smoke

Male and female smokers have significantly lower HDL levels than non-smokers. Drinking and smoking together is a particularly dangerous combo. Even if we change our diet and exercise more, smoking can prevent our cholesterol levels from improving. In other words, not smoking or quitting smoking is one of the best things we can do for our cholesterol. Plus, not smoking makes exercising easier to do, not to mention that it will help reduce our risk of heart attack and heart disease as well.

The Bottom Line

Cholesterol isn’t inherently bad. It’s actually vital for us to live. But too much cholesterol can be harmful, putting us at risk for a number of health issues, such as heart attack, heart disease, or stroke. While a small amount of alcohol — especially wine — may increase levels of good cholesterol, this is not really a valid reason to drink, particularly given alcohol’s other harmful effects. Long-term, heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to high cholesterol and threaten our health. The best thing we can do to maintain healthy cholesterol levels is limiting our alcohol consumption, eating healthily, getting exercise, and not smoking.

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption but don’t know how, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and enhance their health and well-being!

Summary FAQs

1. What is cholesterol? 

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in the cells in our body. It helps our body make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help us digest food.

2. What are the different types of cholesterol? 

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” type of cholesterol that helps remove any excess cholesterol from our body. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” type of cholesterol that can lead to plaque buildup and put us at risk for heart attack, heart disease, or stroke.

3. How does alcohol affect cholesterol levels? 

While small amounts of alcohol may increase levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, regular and heavy consumption of alcohol can raise the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. It can also raise our triglycerides — another type of fat in the blood.

4. How much alcohol is too much? 

Alcohol's effect on cholesterol levels vary from person to person. The more we drink and the more frequently we drink, the greater our risk of developing high cholesterol. If we choose to drink, we should limit ourselves to 2 standard drinks a day or less for men, and 1 standard drink a day or less for women.

5. What are some tips for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels?

In addition to limiting our alcohol consumption, we should eat healthy foods (those low in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars), get consistent physical activity, and not smoke.

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