Problem drinking can cause many serious health issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, on average, 88,000 people die due to excessive drinking problems, ranging from car accidents to liver disease. Drinking too much, especially consistent binge drinking, long-term heavy drinking, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), can cause serious damage to the cardiovascular system, including high blood pressure. About 16 percent of hypertension problems in the United States, according to a 2013 study, is linked to excessive alcohol consumption.
What Is High Blood Pressure?
In general, high blood pressure or hypertension is when the blood’s pressure, pushing against the walls of your arteries and veins, is too intense. This may be a short-term effect that can trigger underlying heart problems, or it could be a chronic problem that can lead to other damage, including damage to the kidneys.
Your heart pumps blood throughout your body to carry nutrients and oxygen to the other organ systems. The first pump of the heart that pushes blood through the vessels to the organs is systolic pressure; the second pump is diastolic pressure, and it occurs when the heart rests between beats. High blood pressure can cause heart failure, heart attack, vision loss, hardened arteries, and increased risk of stroke.
- Normal: less than 120 systolic, 80 diastolic
- Elevated: 120-129 systolic, less than 80 diastolic
- Stage 1 hypertension: 130-139 systolic, 80-89 diastolic
- Stage 2 hypertension: 140 or higher systolic, 90 or higher diastolic
- Hypertension crisis (emergency medical condition requiring hospitalization): higher than 180 systolic, higher than 120 diastolic
Genetic and family history factors can increase your risk of hypertension, but lifestyle and behavioral problems can also increase the risk of high blood pressure. Factors like an unhealthy diet, being overweight, being physically inactive, having diabetes, smoking, and other forms of substance abuse, including alcohol use disorder, can cause high blood pressure.
How Does Alcohol Make Hypertension Worse?
Alcohol can temporarily elevate blood pressure; the effect will wear off once you stop drinking and your liver processes alcohol out of your body. With excessive consumption of alcohol, experiencing high blood pressure as a side effect may become a chronic problem. Reducing the amount of alcohol consumed has been directly correlated to reducing systolic blood pressure.
This is typically associated with vasodilation, or the tightening of blood vessels, when alcohol is consumed. However, alcohol is also high in calories and sugar, which can increase the risk of high blood pressure on a long-term basis by adding to body fat. Alcohol consumption increases the amount of lipids, or fats, that are in the bloodstream, which can damage the arteries, leading to hardening; this can increase blood pressure. Hardened arteries also increase the risk of blood clots, which can cause heart attack or stroke.
One study, for example, found that men with high blood pressure who occasionally drink more than six drinks (an average number of drinks for a binge across all age groups) double their risk of heart attack or stroke. With 12 or more drinks, the risk of suffering a stroke is five times higher.
People who drink a lot of alcohol are less likely to eat, and when they do, they are more likely to eat food that is unhealthy. They are also less likely to exercise due to being intoxicated much of the time. All of these problems increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. Studies have shown a more direct correlation between drinking excessively without eating meals. An older 2004 study found that there was no difference in the negative cardiovascular effect on blood pressure between beer, wine, and hard liquor when the individual did not eat.
It is also important to know potential risk factors like genetics or dietary problems, which may increase your risk of hypertension when you drink moderately instead of excessively. However, people who abuse alcohol are less likely to seek medical treatment for any symptoms that arise. Failure to get help increases damage from arterial hypertension. However, some people fail to get help because they believe they are fine or do not have symptoms; being intoxicated regularly can mask some of the symptoms, like fatigue or low mood.
Preventing and Treating Alcohol-Related High Blood Pressure
When people who have alcohol-induced hypertension stop drinking with a doctor’s oversight, they can see immediate benefits to their blood pressure. However, alcohol withdrawal is sometimes associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, which will go away as withdrawal symptoms go away; however, if you have diagnosed with hypertension due to alcohol abuse, working with a doctor to manage this condition during detox will be very important to avoid further cardiovascular harm.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting alcohol intake in order to avoid hypertension: no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Gender differences impact how alcohol is digested, so the guidelines for moderate drinking and what defines both heavy and binge drinking are different.
- For men younger than 65: no more than two drinks per day on average with two sober days per week
- For men older than 65: no more than one drink per day on average with sober days
- Women of any age: less than one drink per day and two sober days per week
Long-term struggles with high blood pressure can damage the kidneys and increase the risk of dementia due to vascular damage in the brain. Other harm from abusing alcohol can increase the risk of cancer, liver failure, lung damage, and damage to the stomach.
It is important to get help to safely detox from alcohol abuse and find an evidence-based rehabilitation program. If you suffer chronic hypertension from abusing alcohol, working with a physician to safely manage side effects from this condition will help you stay focused on recovery by keeping you healthy.