Alcohol Effects On The Heart
December 10, 2021
Alcohol can affect your body in many ways. One of the organs that get damaged a lot because of alcohol effects is the heart. It’s a crucial organ responsible for pumping blood to all other parts of the body. Without it, the body cannot get enough oxygen and nutrients, and organs will stop functioning.
If you habitually drink alcohol, your heart health could be affected. It can lead to conditions like heart attacks, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, stroke, and many others. Your heart is particularly at risk if you have alcohol use disorder.
Read on to find out more about alcohol’s effects on the heart.
Tachycardia is a condition marked by an abnormally fast heartbeat. Alcohol can interfere with the natural rhythm of the heart, changing the timing between beats. Often, right after you drink, your heart rate increases.
Regular episodes of tachycardia may cause blood clots that lead to a heart attack or stroke. If these blood clots block blood vessels leading to the brain, they can cause a stroke. If they impede the blood vessels of the heart, they can cause a heart attack.
Aside from heart rate, alcohol can also raise your blood pressure immediately after you drink. This is temporary, though. After some time, your blood pressure will go back to normal.
But regular drinking, especially heavy drinking, can lead to hypertension. That means your blood pressure is often higher than normal.
If your blood pressure is high, it could cause the walls of your arteries to harden and thicken. Later on, this may similarly lead to a stroke or a heart attack.
Healthy blood circulation depends on the action of the heart’s muscles, also known as cardiac muscles. These are the most powerful muscles in the body, producing the pressure necessary for blood to flow from the heart to every part of the body.
Alcohol can damage cardiac muscles, leading to a condition called cardiomyopathy. Cardiac muscles are rendered weak, and as a result, the four chambers of the heart would grow larger. With larger chambers and weaker cardiac muscles, the heart’s contractions will be weaker as a result. In turn, proper blood circulation is impeded.
If this condition is not addressed, it can lead to congestive heart failure. At this point, the heart’s pumping action is just not enough to provide blood to all parts of the body.
An arrhythmia is any change in the heart’s normal rhythm. This includes heart rates that are slower than normal (bradycardia) and faster than normal (tachycardia). These are caused by anything that interferes with the heart’s electrical system, which governs the heartbeat. Alcohol is one culprit in inducing disturbances in the heart’s rhythm.
The most common arrhythmia caused by alcohol is called atrial fibrillation. Here, the upper chambers of the heart (the left and the right atrium) shake and tremble instead of beating normally. Alcohol-induced atrial fibrillation has both acute and chronic versions.
When you have atrial fibrillation, blood cannot circulate as efficiently. Some of the blood can pool in either atrium and form clots. And if those clots break off, they can be carried into the bloodstream and lodge in an artery of the brain, causing a stroke.
Can small amounts of alcohol keep my heart healthy?
You may have heard of the notion that occasionally drinking small amounts of alcohol, like red wine, can contribute to better heart health. It’s a fact that alcohol can help your heart in a few ways, such as:
- Raising the levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL), also known as “good” cholesterol
- Helping avoid damage caused by high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol
- Preventing blood clots that can lead to heart attacks
But before you take alcohol as a sort of food supplement, consider this. There is still no solid evidence supporting the idea of small amounts of alcohol as positively contributing to heart health. Doctors are not sure if it’s the alcohol or other good lifestyle choices that keep the heart in good shape. Most likely, if you drink lightly but also eat healthy and exercise regularly, it’s the diet and physical activity that play bigger roles in maintaining your heart health.
How do I keep my heart healthy while drinking alcohol?
The best way to keep your heart healthy is really to avoid drinking. But if you can’t help it, keep your alcohol intake to a light or moderate level. According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate drinking is taking only one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men. Do not drink any more than that to keep your alcohol intake to a moderate level. As much as you can, drink less than that to keep your heart even healthier.
Also, avoid binge drinking at all times. This is defined as taking more than four drinks (for women) or five drinks (for men) in the span of two hours. Binge drinking vastly increases your risk of developing different kinds of heart diseases.
What if I have a heart condition already?
If you have an existing heart condition, it is best to avoid drinking alcohol, as it can make those conditions worse.
If you’ve had a first episode of arrhythmia after a heavy drinking session, you are more likely to experience arrhythmia again in the future. But if you stop drinking, or at least reduce it, your risk drops. The same applies to your blood pressure.
If you have cardiomyopathy, and you stop drinking, your condition will improve. Often, you will even recover from it.
If you have a case of alcohol use disorder alongside a heart condition, it’s best to get help for the addiction right away. The sooner you can minimize drinking, the better it will be for your heart health. You may not be able to completely eliminate alcohol right away, but taking steps to address the drinking problem goes a long way in saving your heart from fatal consequences.