Alcohol is a legal psychoactive substance that can be enjoyed responsibly by adults who are of the legal drinking age of 21 or older. It acts as a central nervous system depressant, promoting relaxation while lowering anxiety levels and slowing down some of the functions involved in the body's stress response, such as body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Alcohol also increases levels of dopamine in the brain, which is one of the chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, that helps to regulate emotions and tells a person when to feel pleasure. So, in short, alcohol can have some desirable and pleasurable side effects. Moderate alcohol consumption has also been linked to heart health, as the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research publishes that it can act as a blood thinner.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Heart Health
Alcohol can reduce some of the "stickiness" of red blood cells, which can lower the odds of blood clotting. Blood clots in thickened arteries or veins are often what contributes to heart attacks and strokes. By reducing the likelihood that these blood cells will stick together and form a clot, alcohol may then “thin” the blood and help to prevent cardiac complications. Acting as a blood thinner, alcohol can then also lower the risk for a stroke, which is when there is a reduced flow of blood to the brain due to blocked or narrowed arteries.
Alcohol is mostly broken down in the liver, which serves to filter out toxins from the blood. Alcohol can stimulate the liver to then increase production of HDL (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol), which can then work to break down LDL (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol). HDL is considered "good" cholesterol while LDL is classified as "bad" cholesterol, a buildup of which can be a contributing factor in a heart attack. So, in a sense, alcohol can help to create a healthy balance of good cholesterol versus bad cholesterol, further lowering the odds for a heart attack or stroke.
The heart benefits and reduction of the rate of coronary heart disease (CHD) from alcohol are thought to impact men who are over 40 and women who are post-menopausal most often. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) publishes that while post-menopausal women who drank alcohol did seem to have a lower rate of CHD, they also had a higher rate of breast cancer.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that moderate alcohol consumption may have some health benefits, which can include:
- Lowered risk of heart attack
- Reduced rate of mortality from heart disease
- Lowered risk of ischemic stroke
- Lessened odds for developing diabetes
These potential health benefits are based on moderate alcohol consumption, however, which the Dietary Guidelines for Health Americans 2015-2020 outline to be up to one drink per day for a man and up to two drinks per day for a woman. Men and women metabolize alcohol differently, which plays a role in why the drink totals are different based on gender. A standard "drink" refers to one glass of wine (five ounces of 7% alcohol), one beer (12 ounces of 5% alcohol), or one shot of distilled spirits (1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor containing 40% alcohol). The guidelines do not recommend that a person who doesn't drink start doing so, as alcohol can also have may negative physical, behavioral, social, and emotional consequences. Similarly someone who has a family history of alcoholism or other biological or environmental risk factors should not drink alcohol either, even in moderation.
The Link between Red Wine and Healthy Hearts
Several studies have been published that link heart health with red wine, as Mayo Clinic reports that a daily glass of red wine may have certain health benefits. Wine, especially red wine, contains antioxidants that may help to increase levels of good cholesterol and prevent cholesterol buildup; this may result in decreased risk of coronary artery disease and subsequent heart attacks.
Red wine contains a substance called resveratrol, an antioxidant flavonoid that may lower bad cholesterol levels and thereby minimize the potential for blood clots. Antioxidants called polyphenols, of which resveratrol is one, may aid in the protection of the lining of blood vessels within the heart as well. Resveratrol is found in the skin of grapes, as well as in other foods, such as cranberries and peanuts; thus, drinking grape juice, and eating grapes or other foods that contain the antioxidant, may be just as beneficial as drinking red wine. Red wine is fermented for a longer amount of time with the grape skins than white wine is, meaning it will contain more resveratrol, which is why it is typically thought to be more heart healthy.
The American Heart Association (AHA) warns that research surrounding red wine and heart health is inconclusive, however, and the people studied who showed benefits from drinking a glass of red wine each day may have also had healthy lifestyle habits that contributed to the lowered rate of mortality due to cardiovascular complications and stroke. For instance, these individuals may have been eating healthy and balanced diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats and regularly engaging in increased levels of physical activity, which can also be connected to heart health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the health benefits could be related to genetics and not to alcohol consumption at all. Just like the Dietary Guidelines, AHA and the CDC do not recommend alcohol consumption for individuals who do not already drink. They also encourage people who drink to do so in moderation in order to minimize some of the potential negative side effects of long-term alcohol use.
Long-Term Cardiovascular Health Concerns of Alcohol
The CDC publishes that excessive drinking contributed to around 90,000 deaths and shortened lifespan of an average of 30 years for those who died from alcohol consumption-related issues between 2006 and 2010. Drinking too much and too often can cause a plethora of negative health consequences. Even just drinking regularly for a long time can damage the body and have harmful side effects.
Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to various physical health issues, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver damage and disease
- Digestive issues
- Certain types of cancers
- Mental health concerns
Specifically related to heart health, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) warns that excessive alcohol use over a long period of time can contribute to myocardial infarction, atrial fibrillation, hypertension, and cardiomyopathy. Alcohol contains empty calories, and when a person drinks, they may replace nutrients with alcohol. Alcohol may then raise the level of triglycerides, or fats, in the blood. Over time, the elevated calorie intake related to alcohol consumption can lead to obesity, a higher risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure. Binge and heavy drinking may cause a stroke or sudden cardiac death as well.
In short, the risks of continued drinking outweigh the small and potential heart-healthy benefits of alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol is, in a sense, a double-edged sword. While it has many pleasurable and potentially heart-healthy benefits, alcohol consumption can also lead to a wide range of issues and concerns. If a person does drink, moderation is key to lower the risks associated with alcohol.