Why Alcohol and Metabolic Syndrome Don't Mix

Gillian May

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I’m a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, and my mission is to educate people about the effects of alcohol, mainly when alcohol is mixed with certain health conditions. Metabolic syndrome is a group of disorders that can lead to severe health outcomes.

These disorders are insulin resistance (pre-diabetes or diabetes), obesity, high triglycerides and cholesterol, and high blood pressure. The risks of metabolic syndrome are strokes, heart attacks, liver failure, kidney failure, diabetes, and cardiovascular and neurological complications.

Up until recently, the message was that mild alcohol intake may help with metabolic syndrome. And in the case of very light drinking (no more than 5 per week for either gender), this may be true. However, recent research shows that frequent and heavy alcohol use worsens metabolic syndrome and can lead to devastating outcomes like heart disease, liver damage, and out-of-control diabetes. Even moderate drinking may not be safe either.

Many people will pass off heavy alcohol use by saying, “well, I heard that wine is good for my heart.” This is not true. Heavy drinking is problematic for anyone, but it can be devastating for those with metabolic syndrome.

Let’s talk about why alcohol and metabolic syndrome don’t mix. The list of research included in this article is listed at the end.

Alcohol changes the nervous system, which affects the heart and organs

The reason we feel “relaxed” when we drink alcohol is that it hijacks our nervous system. The neurotransmitters that speed up or slow down nerve transmission become altered, which affects the heart and organs.

The heart has an electrical system that uses neurotransmitters to keep it beating at an even and steady rate. For anyone who’s experienced a hangover, you’d know that the heart can start palpitating or beating too fast as the body withdraws from alcohol. For someone who already has a heart condition, abusing alcohol can increase the risk of arrhythmia and heart attacks.

Other organs like the kidneys and liver all work to clear alcohol and its toxic effect on the body. Alcohol is known to increase urination during intake, which leads to dehydration. The resulting electrolyte imbalance (sodium, potassium, calcium, etc.) can make pre-existing conditions much worse.

The liver has a massive responsibility in clearing alcohol from the body, and as such, it can take quite a beating when vast amounts of alcohol are ingested. Also, the liver is a vital organ in managing other aspects of metabolic syndrome. Stressing the liver with alcohol can adversely affect metabolic syndrome.

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Alcohol increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

High alcohol intake causes serious issues with blood sugar management as alcohol has a high amount of sugars. Drinking even a few drinks can be equivalent to eating a large dessert or a ton of refined starches, which people with diabetes are often told not to do.

Starches and sugars are not managed well in people with diabetes, so adding more of these substances is like putting poison into the body. But when you consider the toxic aftermath of alcohol, the picture is even worse. The liver is responsible for storing sugars and helping to maintain the balance of sugars in the blood. So when the liver is super stressed from alcohol, it can’t do its job correctly, leading to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Alcohol increases blood pressure

Alcohol raises blood pressure even after the first couple of drinks. It speeds up the heart rate as well. In fact, we can consider high blood pressure a secondary effect of an altered nervous system due to alcohol use. For those already experiencing metabolic syndrome, this side effect can be pretty dangerous. High blood pressure mixed with out-of-control blood sugar and high cholesterol can be deadly.

For those who already have high blood pressure, alcohol will only make that problem worse. Also, the medications used for controlling blood pressure won’t work as well as they should.

For someone with high cholesterol, the main problem they face is the possibility of infarcts (heart attack or stroke) due to hardened arteries and pieces of cholesterol or scar tissue breaking off and clogging up blood vessels. So, if the blood pressure increases from drinking alcohol, the risk of clogged blood vessels also increases considerably.

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Alcohol increases cholesterol production in some people

If you happen to have a genetic predisposition to storing cholesterol, alcohol will only make that worse. This is because alcohol is essentially a type of sugar, and too many sugars and starches can contribute to cholesterol production in people who are already susceptible.

The only treatment for this genetic cholesterol condition is cholesterol-lowering drugs (usually in the statin family). Unfortunately, alcohol can’t be mixed with statins as it can cause serious liver issues. Also, high cholesterol itself can already cause liver issues.

Unfortunately, almost all the medications used to treat metabolic syndrome (cholesterol-lowering drugs, blood pressure drugs, insulin, medicines that improve insulin functioning, etc.) are all dangerous to mix with alcohol as they increase the possibility of liver damage.

Although a glass of wine has been shown to improve certain aspects of metabolic syndrome, most people don’t usually stick to only one drink a day. And in people with metabolic issues, even two glasses of alcohol per day can make these issues worse.

So, it’s evident that alcohol and metabolic syndrome don’t mix. If you or someone you know drinks regularly and has metabolic syndrome, it may be time to consider a different relationship with alcohol.

Here are the research references I used to write this article:

Alcohol Consumption and the Prevalence of the Metabolic Syndrome in the U.S.
Heavy, Lifetime Alcohol Users May Be Toasting Metabolic Syndrome
Habitual Alcohol Consumption and Metabolic Syndrome in Patients with Sleep Disordered Breathing
Metabolic Syndrome
Alcohol-related Liver Disease
Challenges of Type 2 Diabetes in Patients With Alcohol Dependence
Effects of Alcohol on Blood Pressure
The Effect of Alcohol on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Is There New Information?

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.


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