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How Does Alcohol Affect Your Heart Health?

It is well known that long-term alcohol usage causes liver disease, but alcohol's effect on the heart is less understood. However, recent studies have shown that even moderate alcohol intake can have adverse effects on the heart. 

Some mild heart effects caused by alcohol use include elevated blood pressure and an increased heart rate. These conditions can cause more serious heart damage if they remain higher than normal. More serious complications include atrial fibrillation, cardiomyopathy, heart disease, or heart failure. 

Long-term, heavy alcohol use poses greater risks to your heart. However, some people can suffer from alcohol-related heart problems from drinking just one drink per day. 

While smaller amounts of alcohol are less likely to have a harmful effect on your heart, no research proves alcohol is beneficial for heart health. 

Does Moderate Alcohol Consumption Affect Heart Health?

Yes, moderate amounts of alcohol (1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men) can affect heart health. Recent studies suggest that as little as 7 drinks per week can potentially have adverse effects on heart health. It has long been thought that a glass of wine per day has health benefits, but new research suggests this is not entirely true. Even a few ounces of wine per day can lead to an increased risk of heart disease.

Moderate drinkers have a lower risk of developing alcohol-related heart conditions than heavy drinkers. 

For example, consuming more than 14 drinks per week leads to a significant increase in associated heart risks. Binge drinking, which is defined as consuming more than four alcoholic beverages in a single session, can also lead to health problems, such as: 

  • Liver failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Lung inflammation

Non-drinkers have the lowest risk of developing alcohol-related heart conditions than those who drink alcohol. 

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Alcohol and Heart Disease Risks

While the effect of alcohol varies from person to person, numerous heart problems can arise from moderate-to-heavy alcohol use. Some of these conditions are mild and easily treatable, such as high blood pressure. However, others can be severe and require long recovery periods. 

Below are some of the most common heart conditions that can result from long-term alcohol consumption: 

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy is a heart muscle disease characterized by an enlarged or thickened heart. This might lead some people to believe the heart becomes stronger, but it actually makes it more difficult to pump blood through the body. 

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is caused by long-term excessive alcohol consumption and results in an enlarged heart. Cardiomyopathy can affect the heart rhythm and lead to more serious problems as it takes up more space in the chest cavity. It is best to talk to your doctor who can help diagnose and treat this condition. 

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy may not show any symptoms until it is in an advanced stage. However, the most common symptoms may include:

  • A fast, irregular pulse
  • Changes in urine output
  • Concentration problems
  • Cough with pink, frothy mucus
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen legs, ankles, and feet
  • Weakness

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

There are many different types of cardiovascular disease, and coronary artery disease is the most common. This form of heart disease is caused by the long-term buildup of triglycerides that form within the coronary arteries (the heart walls).

These fatty deposits, or plaques, cause the walls to narrow and can lead to blood clots. This makes it harder for the heart to get the oxygen and blood flow it needs to function correctly and can lead to a heart attack and possibly death. 

Drinking alcohol over a long period can affect cholesterol levels and lead to coronary heart disease. 

Initially, CAD doesn't show any signs and symptoms. But as plaques continue to build up, the following symptoms may develop:

  • Angina or chest pain
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest area
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating

Congestive Heart Failure

Heart failure is when the heart can no longer function and cannot pump blood through your body. Congestive heart failure occurs when a buildup of deposits in the blood vessels stops the heart from functioning. Like coronary heart disease, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to congestive heart failure and other heart complications. 

Repeated and long-term alcohol abuse greatly increases the risk of congestive heart failure. 

A person with Congestive Heart Failure may not show any symptoms, or the symptoms may range from mild to severe. Symptoms may also come and go. The most common ones are:

  • Bloating
  • Breathing difficulties when lying down
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen legs, feet, ankle, and abdomen
  • Weakness
  • Weight gain
  • Wheezing

Heart Attack

A heart attack, or cardiac arrest, is a potential side effect of long-term alcohol consumption. While heavy drinking is more likely to contribute to an acute heart problem, moderate drinking over a long period can also increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. 

A heart attack is a medical emergency. Watch out for major symptoms like:

  • Pain in either the left side or in the center of the chest, often described as crushing a type of pain
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Weakness
  • Feeling faint
  • Discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, or back
  • Discomfort or pain in the arms or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath

Heart Arrhythmias

An arrhythmia occurs when the heart deviates from its normal rhythm. It describes an irregular heartbeat that is either too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia). A person might feel like the heart is "fluttering," has added a beat, or missed a beat.

Arrhythmias happen when the electrical signals responsible for coordinating heartbeats aren't properly working. While most arrhythmias are harmless, they are often caused by a damaged or weak heart, potentially leading to severe complications.

 "Holiday Heart Syndrome" is a term coined in 1978. It got its name because cases of this condition increase during the holidays when people have a tendency to drink more. This syndrome occurs after a person has indulged in binge drinking, usually at least 15 units of alcohol within 24 hours. 

Holiday Heart Syndrome is characterized by chest pain, irregular heartbeat, breathlessness, and increased blood pressure. This greatly increases a person's risk of a heart attack and sudden death.

Alcohol and Heart Disease: The Benefits Don’t Outweigh the Risks

While you may have heard about the supposed benefits of drinking alcohol, these aren’t fully backed by science. So if you’re not drinking alcohol, you aren’t missing out on anything. Health professionals do not recommend you start drinking.

Aside from heart problems, drinking alcohol greatly increases the risk of accidents, cancer, liver disease, pancreatitis, violence, injuries, and suicide.

If you want to reduce your risk of heart disease, and the other conditions mentioned above, there are better ways to do so. Exercising, eating a balanced diet, and quitting smoking offer the same benefits without the unnecessary risks that alcohol carries. 

Resources

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Helping patients who drink too much: a clinician’s guide.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2005). 

Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008).

Harwood H. (2000). “Updating estimates of economic costs of alcohol abuse in the United States: estimates, update methods, and data.” Rockville (MD): National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIH Publication No. 98-4327. 

"Coronary Artery Disease." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Effects of Alcohol on your Heart." British Heart Foundation.

Piano, Mariann R. “Alcohol's Effects on the Cardiovascular System.” Alcohol research : current reviews vol. 38,2 (2017): 219-241.

 

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