In the past, some research has shown that alcohol may be healthy for the heart. However, current research now says that any amount of alcohol is damaging to the brain, heart, immune system, and other organs. Recent research in 2016 and 2018 shows that low-dose alcohol is still dangerous for heart and brain health and can be deadly when combined with other illnesses.
As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I want people to have the most accurate health information about alcohol and its effects on the body. Although alcohol wreaks havoc on all body systems, let's look at what it does to the heart specifically, because for sure alcohol is hard on the heart. Even though previous reports discussed protective benefits of alcohol on cardiovascular health, these reports have now been largely refuted. For example, a report put out in 2014 says that studies showing a cardiovascular benefit for alcohol were very weak studies with low rigour and, as such, are flawed. However, randomized control trials (the gold standard of research) show absolutely no benefit from low-dose drinking. Very low moderate drinking (i.e., 1 or 2 drinks once a week) may be tolerable for some people. Still, it really depends on their current health and comorbidities (other illnesses).
Also, studies of populations that have significantly reduced alcohol intake don’t show any evidence of heart issues. This means that alcohol intake does not help lower heart disease risk. If so, people who didn’t drink much would show higher levels of cardiovascular disease, and this simply isn’t the case.
But most people don’t even know why alcohol can be dangerous for the heart. Many times these facts are put out there without any explanation. So it’s difficult for people to understand how their choices affect their health. This leads people to make blind decisions about alcohol use without understanding the facts behind it.
Let's look at the main reasons why alcohol is dangerous for the heart and cardiovascular system.
Increased blood pressure
Alcohol use initially dilates blood vessels leading to that flushing warm feeling. However, afterward, it constricts blood vessels, which raises the heart rate and blood pressure. Frequent drinking, even at moderate levels, can exacerbate blood pressure issues.
For those who take medications for blood pressure, alcohol can interfere with these medications. Alcohol makes heart medications less effective, which can be a big problem for someone who needs medication to lower their blood pressure. For others, alcohol use can combine with certain blood pressure-lowering drugs to create an even lower blood pressure. This can lead to severe dizziness, fainting, and accidents.
Disturbance of the electrical system of the heart
Alcohol has a severe effect on the nervous system. It increases the neurotransmitters responsible for activating the nervous system. This is because the nervous system has to adapt when confronted with alcohol. One of its adaptations is to increase glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter that activates and excites the nervous system.
Also, alcohol use suppresses the action of the inhibitory neurotransmitter. This is the one responsible for calming down the nervous system. The effect of alcohol increases this inhibition leading to the “drunk” feeling. However, over time, the nervous system tries to balance out by reducing alcohol’s effect on the inhibiting neurotransmitter. What results is a nervous system wired for excitation and suppressed for inhibition.
It’s essential to understand this to know why alcohol has such a dangerous effect on the nervous system. With a nervous system wired for excitation, the body goes into an over-excited state when alcohol use stops. This leads to all the withdrawal and hangover symptoms. But in particular, an over-excited nervous system will affect the heart’s electrical current, leading to arrhythmias, palpitations, high blood pressure, and high heart rate.
This effect is relatively common and can happen even for people who don’t drink heavily all the time. For example, hospital emergency departments have coined the phrase “the holiday heart” because of the increased heart-related admissions after major holidays. Some people tend to drink a lot over holidays sending their heart into a tailspin and leading to ER visits for heart rhythm problems.
Increased portal hypertension for heavier drinkers
Portal hypertension only happens to very heavy and frequent drinkers, but it’s worth mentioning here. Portal hypertension is actually the result of alcoholic liver disease. A diseased liver loses some of its blood vessel circuitry. It thus pushes blood out of the liver and up into the thoracic region (from the waist up). This effect can happen even before the liver shows signs of decreased function. The liver is very good at maintaining its operations even when diseased. However, portal hypertension may be present and can put a lot of pressure on the heart.
Portal hypertension causes increases in blood pressure as well as bulging blood vessels in the thoracic area. With portal hypertension, the risk of heart attack, bleeding, and heart rhythm problems are very significant. Some people with alcoholic liver disease may die of a heart attack before they manifest signs of a failing liver.
In conclusion, alcohol use can affect the heart by increasing blood pressure, even for moderate drinkers. It can disturb the heart’s electrical rhythm, even for those who only drink heavily at times. Lastly, it can cause portal hypertension for heavy drinkers, which puts severe stress on the heart. Heavy drinking is anything past 8 drinks per week for a woman and 15 drinks per week for a man.
The more people understand precisely why alcohol is dangerous for the heart, the more they can make informed choices about their health and alcohol use.