Are There Risks & Rewards to Your Heart from Drinking Alcohol?
Much has been made in recent years about the benefits of drinking alcohol in moderation. Based on a number of studies that have been completed over the past several decades, there are all sorts of claims about how alcohol can enhance health for various parts of the body and for mental health, too. Many of these studies have been directly related to how drinking alcohol in various forms can benefit the health of the heart.
However, it is important to note that these studies emphasize moderation. In larger amounts, alcohol can cause bigger problems than it solves. In fact, for individuals struggling with heart issues or with the potential for other problems, the benefits of avoiding alcohol far outweigh the benefits of drinking it.
Alcohol and Physical Health
Often, when people discuss the positives and negatives of drinking alcohol, the first thing that comes up is the effect that alcohol has on the brain and mental health. However, alcohol has profound effects on physical health, too. Drinking alcohol doesn’t just slow down cognition; it also affects coordination and response time, and it can change conditions in the body for various organs and organ systems.
The heart is one of the organs that is affected by alcohol consumption. While many studies have demonstrated that there are benefits for the heart that result from drinking moderate alcohol regularly, alcohol can also have detrimental effects on the heart. Understanding the details about the studies and knowing where they have limitations can help in determining whether alcohol is truly beneficial for each individual.
Alcohol and the Heart: Benefits
For many years now, certain types of research have been indicating that there are some benefits to the heart from drinking alcohol, particularly wine. One early example is an article from the 2001 Postgraduate Medical Journal, which summarizes more than 180 studies and observations that indicate drinking one to two drinks per day lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Studies touting the benefits of alcohol to heart health are still being performed today. A recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology indicates that people who drink a light to moderate amount of alcohol (that’s one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) are more likely to live longer. In addition, a recent study from the British Medical Journal indicates that people who consume a light to moderate amount of alcohol are less likely to experience the following diseases when compared to those who don’t drink alcohol at all:
- Unstable heart pain (angina)
- Heart attack
- Ischemic stroke (cutting off blood flow to part of the body)
- Sudden coronary death
- Arterial disease
- Abdominal aortic aneurism
Where Alcohol’s Benefits End
The information in these studies and many others is greatly convincing regarding the benefits of drinking alcohol. The studies in full, however, indicate that there’s a point at which alcohol’s benefits are overshadowed by the harm it can cause. This point rests on how much alcohol is consumed.
As implied by the studies above, while moderation in alcohol consumption tends to support heart health, heavy alcohol use has the opposite effect, leading toward potential heart disease instead. A study published by the European Journal of Heart Failure goes even further with this. It demonstrates that, while early studies found a connection between heavy alcohol use and higher incidence of heart disease and heart failure, there is also relevance to the studies that demonstrate some heart health benefits with light to moderate alcohol use.
Ultimately, it appears that the balance between benefit and detriment depends more on the individual’s susceptibility to heart problems, alcoholism, and other conditions. In other words, it is difficult to generalize about how any single individual will ultimately respond to any type of alcohol use, a conclusion matched by other studies and analyses, such as one from Nature Reviews Cardiology.
Alcohol in Moderation: What Does That Mean?
There’s a common caveat mentioned in most of the studies looking at the benefits of alcohol: Benefits are only achieved when alcohol is consumed in moderation. To understand what this means, it is important to understand the definition of moderate drinking compared with heavy drinking. The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines levels of drinking in the following ways:
- Moderate drinking for women is no more than three drinks on one day and no more than seven in a week.
- Moderate drinking for men is no more than four drinks on one day and no more than 14 in a week.
- One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor; or whatever is equivalent to approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol.
- Binge drinking is when alcohol intake leads to a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, or when a man drinks five or more drinks in two hours; for women, it’s four or more drinks in two hours.
- Heavy use involves regularly consuming more than the above moderate amounts, or binge drinking on five or more days within about a 30-day period.
Alcohol intake that increases health risks includes regular binge drinking or heavy drinking. Studies of alcohol benefits, on the other hand, include only moderate drinking or less.
Risks of Drinking Alcohol
Even considering the benefits of drinking alcohol, the individual should still determine whether or not they outweigh the risks. As explained by NIAAA, drinking alcohol can cause or contribute to major health problems, such as:
- Injury, based on risky behaviors while under the influence of alcohol
- Birth defects in babies born to women who drink during pregnancy
- Physical illness, such as heart or liver disease or various types of cancer
- Mental health disorders, such as insomnia or depression
- Alcohol use disorders, including alcoholism
Because the effect of alcohol on a person depends on the individual, it is not always possible to determine what level of drinking might lead to these issues. On average, research shows that the moderate drinking levels above provide benefits. However, this does not take into account people who have higher risk of developing these issues, or those who may react more strongly to smaller amounts of alcohol. For this reason, each individual should consider family history, personal health, and other factors before starting to drink alcohol.
Are the Benefits Worth It?
For some people, starting to drink can increase the potential for developing the above issues. Also, some have more trouble limiting themselves to moderate drinking than others. For these individuals, it seems counterproductive to start drinking alcohol simply to achieve some of the heart health benefits found through research.
In addition, the potential for drinking too much can turn what would be a heart health benefit into an increased potential for heart disease. In fact, another recent study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that heavy drinking or alcohol abuse can lead to increased rates of atrial fibrillation (a precursor to stroke), heart attack, and congestive heart failure. Considering these factors, starting to drink alcohol simply to gain heart health benefits seems to be a risky decision.
When Even Moderation Is Too Much
For those who do drink alcohol, sometimes it is not possible to stick to a moderate intake. These individuals may find it difficult to control the amount of alcohol that is used, and find themselves drinking heavily or binge drinking. If this is the case, these individuals may be at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
When moderate drinking is too much, there is help available. Professional, reputable, and certified rehab programs can provide therapy and other support that can help these individuals to stop abusing alcohol and develop ways of coping with cravings and triggers, making it possible to abstain from alcohol altogether. With this support, these individuals can enjoy much healthier lives, providing the true benefit of decreased health risks and a more positive outlook.