Alcohol and Your Heart
Over the last 3 decades, a number of studies have shown an association between moderate
drinking and a lowered risk for heart attack, heart and circulatory diseases, stroke,
type 2 diabetes, and gallstones.
But the research results lead to a kind of double-edged sword when it comes to alcohol.
Alcohol may have some health benefits, but it may also lead to abusive drinking and
other diseases. Because there is no sure way to know who will develop an abuse problem,
the American Heart Association (AHA) and other experts don't recommend starting to
drink if you don't already do so. The AHA also recommends talking with your healthcare provider
about the benefits and risks of moderate alcohol use.
Learn the meaning of moderation
Moderate drinking is defined as no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks
a day for men. Pregnant women should avoid all alcohol because it can lead to birth
defects. A drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 4 ounces to 5 ounces of
wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
Moderation is defined differently for men, women, and older adults because alcohol’s
effects depend on how the body absorbs and breaks down alcohol. Older adults break
down alcohol more slowly than younger people. This means alcohol stays in their bodies
longer. A person's height and weight are critical in the absorption of alcohol. The
smaller and lighter you are, the more quickly alcohol is absorbed. People from some
ethnic groups also have a harder time breaking down alcohol. Even small amounts can
have a big effect on their bodies.
Know how you react to alcohol
People respond differently to alcohol for other reasons besides height and weight.
Your gender, age, genetics, overall health, the amount of alcohol you drink, when
you drink it, and any history of problem drinking can affect your reaction to alcohol.
When alcohol is taken into the body, it passes from the stomach and small intestine
into the blood and is carried to all organs of the body. Alcohol can be dissolved
in water, so it enters your organs in proportion to the amount of water they hold.
The more water available in the organs to soak up alcohol, the less alcohol remains
in your bloodstream.
Your liver does most of the work of breaking down the alcohol you drink. The liver
removes alcohol from your body so it won't damage other organs. The liver can break
down only a certain amount of alcohol per hour, regardless of the amount you drink.
A very small percentage of alcohol escapes this process and is eliminated unchanged
in your breath, sweat, and urine. (This alcohol can be found through a breathalyzer
test.) Until all the alcohol in the body has been broken down, it stays in the brain
and other tissues of the body and continues to cause effects.
Men vs. women
In general, women and older men have less water in their organs than younger men.
Therefore, less alcohol enters their organs and more alcohol remains in their bloodstream.
Younger women make less of a stomach enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. This enzyme
breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This means more alcohol is available to be soaked
up into the blood. As a result, a young woman will have a higher blood alcohol level
than a man of the same age who drinks the same amount of alcohol.
Heredity may play a role in how alcohol and your body act together. Moderate drinkers
who have genes that cause a slower break down of alcohol are at much lower risk for
cardiovascular disease than moderate drinkers who have genes that cause rapid break
down of alcohol.
Alcohol is broken down more slowly than it is soaked up. The process of soaking up
alcohol is slowed when you drink alcohol during or immediately after a meal. The slower
soaking up process allows the liver to break down alcohol at a rate that keeps more
of it from reaching other organs.
Because the liver breaks down alcohol, people with liver disease are more sensitive
to drinking. Certain medicines may cause harmful reactions if you drink while taking
them. Alcohol affects the break down of a wide variety of medicines by increasing
the activity of some and decreasing the activity of others. Most notably, heavy alcohol
consumption when taking acetaminophen can lead to liver damage.
Additionally, for people with a history of alcoholism, the danger of drinking is far
greater than the possible cardiovascular benefits.
Health benefits and concerns
The AHA says moderate alcohol consumption helps protect against heart disease by raising
HDL ("good") cholesterol and reducing plaque collections in your arteries. Alcohol
also has a mild anticoagulating effect. This keeps platelets from clumping together
to form blood clots. Moderate drinking may lower the risk for coronary heart disease
among men older than 45 and women older than 55, says the National Council on Alcoholism
and Drug Dependence. Moderate consumption provides little, if any, health benefit
for younger people. And the risk of alcohol abuse increases when drinking starts at
an early age. Remember that alcohol doesn't provide complete protection against heart
disease. It also does not make up for negative health habits like smoking. Smoking
lowers HDL and increases the risk of harmful blood clots.
In addition, the AHA says, regular physical exercise also can raise HDL. And excessive
drinking can raise triglyceride levels, increase blood pressure, and raise the risk
Consider alcohol's caloric content
There's no fat in alcohol. That's the good news. But there are 7 calories per gram,
and that translates to between 100 calories and 150 calories for the alcohol in a
typical beer, wine, or spirits drink. Add to that the calories in drink mixers, and
drinking could be a setup for weight gain.