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How alcohol affects your heart

Drinking alcohol to excess can have serious consequences for your short and long-term health. As well as affecting your liver, did you know that too much alcohol can also have a negative impact on your heart?

There’s no harm in enjoying an occasional drink in moderation, but drinking to excess can have a serious impact on your health. Cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease and stroke, are the leading cause of death worldwide, and too much alcohol plays a role in this. In fact, alcohol can affect your heart in a variety of ways.

Details

  • Alcohol weakens your heart muscle Alcohol weakens your heart muscle

    Long-term, heavy drinking can weaken your heart muscle. This causes a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy.

    When your heart is weakened, it cannot contract properly. It becomes unable to pump enough blood around your body. This results in symptoms such as shortness of breath, tiredness, an irregular heartbeat and swelling in your legs and feet. In severe cases, it can lead to heart failure.

  • Alcohol affects how quickly your heart beats Alcohol affects how quickly your heart beats

    Binge drinking and regular long-term drinking can affect how quickly your heart beats. Alcohol can cause the heart to either beat too quickly or beat irregularly. These irregularities are called arrhythmias and can have serious consequences for your health.

    It’s not just regular excessive drinking that can trigger arrhythmia. You are also at risk if you suddenly drink to excess, especially if you don’t usually drink alcohol.

  • Alcohol can cause high blood pressure and stroke Alcohol can cause high blood pressure and stroke

    Binge drinking puts you at risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension. This occurs when your blood vessels stiffen, causing the pressure inside your veins and arteries to rise. Heavy alcohol consumption also triggers the release of certain stress hormones that constrict your blood vessels. This in turn elevates your blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the key risk factors for a heart attack or stroke.

  • Worried about your heart health?

    Get a picture of your current health and potential future health risks with a Bupa health assessment. Find out more today.

  • How to reduce your risk How to reduce your risk

    The main thing you can do to reduce the negative impact of alcohol on your heart health is to drink in moderation.

    Proposed new guidelines recommend that you should not regularly drink more than 14 units over the course of a week. If you do drink as much as 14 units, you should spread it over three days or more, rather than 'saving up' units.

    An easy way to cut back on your intake is to have several drink-free days each week.

  • What is binge drinking? What is binge drinking?

    Binge drinking doesn’t mean you drink alcohol each day, but you:

    • regularly drink alcohol to get drunk
    • drink very quickly
    • regularly drink more than the daily unit recommendations in a single drinking session
  • Can alcohol ever benefit your heart? Can alcohol ever benefit your heart?

    You may have heard that alcohol can be good for your heart. And in fact, there may be some benefit of enjoying a small drink now and then. Some studies have found that red wine, in particular, could have heart benefits. This may be due to components of red wine, such as antioxidants and flavonoids, which may help prevent the formation of thrombosis, or blood clots.

    However, there are only benefits from drinking moderate amounts (one or two units a day). Also, research suggests this benefit may only be applicable to people over the age of 45. It’s not an excuse to drink more than the recommended limits, as excess amounts will cancel out any benefit.

    Your heart is designed to last a lifetime. Look after the one you’ve got by drinking in moderation, keeping active, eating a healthy and balanced diet and not smoking.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). World Health Organization. www.who.int, published March 2013
    • Beyond hangovers: understanding alcohol’s impact on your health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. pubs.niaaa.nih.gov, published September 2010
    • Alcohol and heart disease. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, accessed 1 August 2013
    • Alcohol and heart disease. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 1 August 2013
    • Binge drinking. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published April 2013
    • Alcohol and heart disease. American Heart Association. www.heart.org, accessed 1 August 2013
    • How much is too much? Alcohol Concern. www.alcoholconcern.org.uk, accessed 8 August 2013
    • Alcohol guidelines. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, www.publications.parliament.uk, published 7 December 2011
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    Produced by Rachel Newcombe, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2013.

    This information was updated in January 2016 following revisions to the Department of Health’s guidelines for alcohol consumption.

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