Myths and Facts About Alcohol and Your Heart
Mythbusting: What's True and False About Alcohol and the Heart?
Does a glass of red wine a day really keep the cardiologist away? In recent years, some studies seem to suggest that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol could do more good than harm. After hearing reports of the studies, some people might wonder if it's better to start drinking than to avoid alcohol.
The reality is that if you don't already drink, starting isn't going to boost your heart health. If you already drink, doing so in moderation is most likely fine. And, if you're concerned about how much you drink or the effects alcohol might have on your heart and overall health, your best option is to talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns.
Let's take a look at a few common beliefs about alcohol consumption and the role it plays in heart health.
Myth: Drinking Every Day is Good for Your Heart
Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men1. The media likes to share news of studies that suggest that a daily glass of red wine protects the heart or has other health benefits.
One reason why people believe that drinking in moderation has heart benefits is that small amounts of alcohol can raise the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) in the body. But it's also important to note that if you're interested in improving your cholesterol levels, there are more effective ways to do it, such as by increasing your physical activity levels1.
Even if you only drink one glass a day, there is the risk that your consumption will increase over time. Drinking more increases your risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and other heart issues. If you're concerned about how much you drink, your doctor can help you make a plan for cutting back.
Fact: Drinking Alcohol Can Change Your Heartrate
Alcohol can make your heart beat faster, so fast that it feels like it's racing, a condition that's known as atrial fibrillation, or AFib. AFib can put you at an increased risk for strokes, heart failure, or blood clots2.
The more you drink, the more likely you are to develop AFib, but even moderate drinking (up to a couple of drinks a day) can increase your risk. The risk increases with each daily drink. Additionally, you don't have to be a regular drinker to be at risk. The occasional binge, drinking five or more drinks in rapid succession, can also lead to AFib.
Myth: A Drink is a Drink
A beer is a beer, right? Not quite. While "one drink" is typically defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits, it's important to remember that some drinks contain a lot more alcohol than others. An IPA can have an ABV of 7% or more, which is considerably more than the 4.2% ABV of a lite beer.
Some wines have a higher alcohol content than others, too. A full-bodied red might have an ABV of 14% while a young white wine can have an ABV of 9%.
When you drink a cocktail, such as a martini that has three ounces of gin or vodka, you're really drinking two drinks (two 1.5 ounce servings).
Just because a drink has more alcohol than another doesn't mean you have to skip it. Be aware of the alcohol content and adjust the amount you consume accordingly. Instead of drinking 12 ounces of an IPA, you might enjoy 6 ounces.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the alcohol found in drinks is the same and has the same effects on your health, whether you drink beer, wine, or liquor.
Fact: Alcohol Affects Different People Differently
Everyone's body is slightly different, which means that the way people's bodies respond to alcohol is somewhat different. Your overall health, the amount of water in your body, and your age all affect your body's response to alcohol.
Your liver is responsible for processing alcohol, but it can only handle so much at once. The state of your liver and whether you take medications that affect it, such as cholesterol-lowering medicines, also contribute to how much alcohol the liver can process at once.
Alcohol tolerance also plays a role in how your body responds to drinking. The higher your tolerance, the more you can seem to drink without becoming drunk. Even if you have a high tolerance for alcohol, the same amount is building up your blood. So you might not feel drunk, but your blood alcohol concentration would suggest otherwise.
What's a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to drinking? If you drink in moderation and don't have any chronic health problems, continuing to drink the amount you consume is likely fine. If you don't already drink, there's no real health benefit to starting. And, if you're concerned about how much you drink or how alcohol is affecting your heart, your healthcare provider can help you cut back or quit.
1. Alcohol and Heart Health, American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/alcohol-and-heart-health
2. Does Alcohol Cause AFib?, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/atrial-fibrillation/atrial-fibrillation-alcohol