Ultimate Guide to Alcohol-Induced Heart Damage
We have heard for many years now that a moderate amount of alcohol, particularly red wine, is good for your heart. This has been termed ‘alcohol cardioprotection.’ But we urge you to take these claims with a generous pinch of salt. New studies reveal people who drink very little or no alcohol at all have lower blood pressure and lower rates of heart disease and weigh less than their moderate-to-heavy drinking peers.
Many believe “light-to-moderate” drinking is good for your heart and your overall health. Light-to-moderate drinking is defined at about a glass of wine per day. However, even reducing this amount could do your heart some good. For instance, recent studies examined people with a rare genetic condition that cause them to flush and experience nausea when alcohol is consumed. These people thus tend to avoid alcohol entirely. These studies reveal these people experienced the lowest levels of heart disease compared to others who participated in these studies.
At best, the claims that light drinking is beneficial to your health is questionable at best, and at worst these claims are deceitful lies spread by alcohol-industry funded researchers.
What’s utterly clear is that if you are a chronic binge drinker or suffer from alcoholism, you are exposing to your heart to a number of deadly conditions. Your drinking could by causing permanent damage to your heart and therefore other major organs located throughout the body that depends on your heart for their very survival.
Can alcohol strengthen the heart?
Some studies claim moderate drinking may result in a healthier heart. However, much of this research is funded by the alcohol industry and thus bias at best and deceitful at worst.
For the sake of completeness, we list some of the purported benefits to your heart when you choose to drink alcohol in moderate quantities:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Raises HDL i.e. good cholesterol
- Reduces the risk of damage caused by LDL i.e. bad cholesterol
- Stops blood from clotting
Many of the above benefits are lost as soon as you drink more than one or two drinks a day. Furthermore, all of the above benefits may also be derived by undertaking light exercise once per day.
5 ways alcohol damages your heart
Now we list 5 major ways alcohol may inflict damage to your heart. If you drink more than one alcoholic beverage a day, we recommend you read the below information carefully. With this information in mind, we recommend you decrease the amount of alcohol you consume in order to reverse the below damage you may be unknowingly inflicting on your heart.
#1: High blood pressure and hypertension
The link between alcohol consumption and high blood pressure (hypertension) is well established. Many studies prove that people who drink more than two alcoholic drinks per day are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure. When alcohol consumption is reduced, there is a corresponding decrease in blood pressure.
But what is blood pressure? The answer is simple. Blood pressure measures the force that blood exhorts on blood vessel walls as blood travels throughout your body.
Blood pressure is thus a measurement of the pressure your heart generates when it beats. High blood pressure may weaken your blood vessels resulting in their breakdown. High blood pressure causes blood vessels to become stiff and lose their flexibility. This may be caused by hormones released when you consume alcohol.
If you suffer from high blood pressure, the risks of suffering from a stroke or heart attack are considerably increased.
#2: High blood cholesterol
This point is related to point #1 above. When you experience high blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol builds up along the walls of your blood vessels. Like triglycerides explained below, cholesterol is a form of blood-borne fat located in your blood vessels. High cholesterol causes a sort of plaque to accumulate along blood vessel walls.
Over time, this plaque may break away and block blood vessels. Thus, high cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. Heavy drinking and heavy occasional drinking is also known to reduce the amount of protective HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated a link between high cholesterol and heavy drinking. When compared to a “control group” consisting of non-drinkers, heavy drinkers consistently demonstrate higher levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower levels of protective HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
If you suffer from high cholesterol, your GP may prescribe you statins and recommend you cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink and improve your diet. You will be advised to cut down on foods high in saturated fat such as butter, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products. You will be advised to eat foods high in unsaturated fats such as olive, rapeseed or sunflower oil, and lean meats/fish such as skinless chicken.
#3: High triglycerides
Triglycerides are blood-borne fats located in the circulatory system. Numerous studies have also demonstrated a link between high triglycerides and heavy drinking. When compared to a “control group” consisting of non-drinkers, heavy drinkers consistently demonstrate higher levels of triglycerides than their non-drinking peers.
High levels of triglycerides result in a condition known as hypertriglyceridemia. Over time, this condition may cause coronary artery disease. Hypertriglyceridemia causes a condition known as atherosclerosis. This is when arteries thicken and harden. This increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
But why does alcohol intake result in high triglycerides?
Firstly, triglycerides are also produced by the liver. Heavy drinking causes the liver to release too many triglycerides into your circulatory system. This is because alcohol weakens the liver’s ability to oxidise compounds correctly. The liver instead converts free fatty acids into triglycerides. This causes a dangerous build up of triglycerides in the blood.
Secondly, some alcoholic drinks are also high in refined carbohydrates. A high intake of refined carbohydrates is known to increase levels of triglycerides.
If you suffer from high triglycerides, we recommend you implement the below steps in order to lower your triglycerides levels:
- Take regular exercise. This will lower your triglycerides and boost “good” cholesterol
- Eat less saturated fats and instead eat more unsaturated fats
- Do not eat sugary food
- Do not eat wheat, particularly fortified wheat flour
- Reduce the number of calories you consume
- Lose weight
- Limit the amount of alcohol you consume
- Consume niacin, omega-3 fatty acids and fibrates
Insist on regular blood tests. This will demonstrate implementing the above steps is having a positive effect on your health.
#4: Irregular heart rhythm/arrhythmia
Arrhythmia is a condition when you experience an irregular heart rhythm. The condition is commonly known as ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome.’ This is because the condition commonly occurs after a heavy drinking session, perhaps when the sufferer is on holiday.
The heart manages its rhythm via its own natural pacemaker. This pacemaker means the heart pumps blood around the body at the correct speed and rhythm. However, exposure to alcohol is known to disrupt this natural pacemaker and speed up the heart’s rhythm or force the heart to beat at an irregular pace. You will experience breathlessness and chest pains. If you experience these symptoms, call 999 without delay. Symptoms typically reduce within 24 hours but could be fatal.
#5: Alcoholic cardiomyopathy
Also worth a mention is a condition known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This is a form of heart disease caused by excessive alcohol consumption. This condition is characterised by an enlarged heart and weakened contractions. When you consume an excessive amount of alcohol over an extended period of time, you weaken and thin your heart muscles. This weakens the ability of your heart to pump blood around your body. This affects the ability of your major organs to perform tasks required to sustain your life. Over time, this could lead to heart failure and death.
But how does alcoholic cardiomyopathy arise?
The answer is simple: alcohol is toxic to cells contained throughout your body, including your heart. Over time, alcohol damages cells contained in the heart. This weakens your heart so heart failure becomes a risk.
However, alcoholic cardiomyopathy is relatively rare and typically only affects people who suffer from long-term alcoholism, often spanning several decades.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is often symptom-free until it’s too late. You may only realise you suffer from alcoholic cardiomyopathy once acute heart failure arises. However, alcoholic cardiomyopathy may result in symptoms. If you look out for these symptoms, you may be able to seek medical advice before it is too late.
Early symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy include:
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the legs
- Swelling of the feet
- Dizziness and fainting
- A rapid pulse
If you recognise the above symptoms, visit your local GP without delay. If you experience chest pains, call 999 or have a relative rush you to your local A&E Department. Quick treatment will buy you some time and may result in a reversal of alcoholic cardiomyopathy. A specialist cardiologist will examine your chest to hear your heart and lungs. Tell-tale signs of alcoholic cardiomyopathy include an enlarged heart or the sound of a heart murmur caused by a damaged valve. Other tell-tale signs of alcoholic cardiomyopathy include swelling of the feet and legs and swelling of the jugular veins.
Reducing these risks
In an ideal world, you may reduce the above risks by ceasing to drink alcohol. However, many of you may struggle to avoid alcohol entirely, and many more of you will be unwilling to completely give up alcohol forever. Thus, we at least urge you to drink in moderation. This means drinking no more than one or two alcoholic drinks per day for no more than three days per week. We also urge you not to drink more than 15 units of alcohol per week.
We also recommend you reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet, as well as reducing the overall number of calories you consume. Lastly, we recommend you conduct light exercise such as walking for at least 30 minutes each day.