Home » Heart Health » How Does Alcohol Affect Your Heart Health
“All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
These were the words of no other than Winston Churchill himself, and such eloquent words they were. There’s this joie de vivre seemingly emanating from it, making us all chuckle and reminisce fondly over memories of times spent inebriated. Perhaps not ALL of us, but the truth is that it is MOST of us.
As per the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 85.6 percent of people aged 18 and older in the United States reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. The same survey noted that 25.8 percent of people aged 18 and older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Across the Atlantic, a UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey from 2016 shows that 11.9% of 45–64 year olds, and 17.7% of those aged 65 and over consumed alcohol on 5 of the last 7 days.
Yes, we drink a lot. Probably even more than the data tells us, because these already astronomical numbers are just the reported ones. Alcohol is without a doubt the most socially acceptable drug, but that’s not a problem in and of itself. Life isn’t simply about surviving, it’s about enjoying, and certainly alcohol can be very enjoyable. That’s probably why so many of us consume it. The issue arises when this global acceptance of the substance leaves people ignorant to what it truly is, and what it’s capable of when consumed without care.
What is it capable of? Well, according the WHO, quite a lot. Data published by the organisation allows us to chart the percentage of deaths in different countries that are directly related to Alcohol consumption. In the year 2016 this number was 4.6% for the UK, 4.9% in the United States, 5.4% in India, 6% in Mexico, 6.9% in Brazil, and 7.6% in South Korea. Countries in eastern Europe like Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Latvia all have rates above 20%.
It is important to recognise that these numbers are moderately inflated by the fact that any deaths related to alcohol are considered, including crimes and accidents. That being said, a large portion of the deaths represented by these numbers come from health complications caused by alcohol, and one of the bodily systems most affected by excessive consumption is the cardiovascular system.
Before we get into all the ways alcohol is detrimental to your heart health, it’s important we debunk the myth that tries to make the opposite relationship true.
No, drinking a glass of red wine every night is not the same as self-care for your heart. I hate to do it, I really do, but we can’t keep pretending like we live in this dreamworld where drinking alcohol makes you healthier. The reason this myth came about was because there were a few studies that showed a correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and a lower risk of dying from heart disease. There is evidence that moderate amounts can raise the level of “good” HDL cholesterol, and that red wine in particular has certain antioxidants that protect your heart, but causality is very hard to determine from these studies. Critics believe that factors such as wealth, education, access to healthier food options etc. play a large role, and there’s data to support that. The same UK based survey mentioned above splits its data by annual income to see the difference in binge drinking across this metric, and (as seen below) the results show that richer demographics showed higher rates of binge drinking, meaning those who were drinking more are also the ones with better healthcare access with a higher quality lifestyle to boot.
So, now that that’s been debunked and we know that drinking isn’t benefitting your heart, let’s look at all the ways it’s hurting it.
Another short term manner in which alcohol damages your heart is by raising your blood pressure. Infrequent, temporary rises in blood pressure can be completely harmless, but when it becomes frequent due to excessive alcohol consumption it can lead to alcohol cause hypertension. Having a consistently high blood pressure is terrible for your health as it can harden and thicken your arteries, and is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.
The first long term effect of alcohol is in weakening the heart muscle as a whole. The heart uses its muscle layer within the wall to be able to contract so that blood can be circulated efficiently around the body. When this layer of heart muscle is damaged it is called a cardiomyopathy, and alcohol induced cardiomyopathy is amongst the most common. The weakened heart muscle and subsequent weakened contractions can lead to congestive heart failure, which is when the heart cannot pump blood as per the body’s requirements.
Long term alcohol overuse can also lead to irregular heartbeats that are known as arrhythmia’s. Certain acute cardiac rhythm disturbances, like atrial fibrillation, can be induced by alcohol. Atrial Fibrillation can be caused by a random instance of drinking as well as the cumulative effects of overuse. Atrial Fibrillation and other arrhythmias are capable of leading to heart attack and stroke.
The other major complication that each of these damages can lead to is having a Stroke. There are two types of strokes that can be caused in such situations. Firstly, an Ischemic Stroke. This kind of stroke occurs when an artery that is supplying blood to the brain gets blocked. Alcohol is directly related to this type of stroke because of all the ways (mentioned above) that it can lead to blockages in the arteries. The second type is a Haemorrhagic Stroke, and these occur when an artery that supplies brain tissue ruptures and bleeds. Alcohol is directly related to this type of stroke as severe increases in blood pressure can create weak points on artery walls that lead to rupturing. Both types result in a disruption of blood flow to the brain, and can result in a loss of motor (movement) and sensory (touch, temperature sensations) functions. Strokes also have the ability to damage your skeletal, muscular, respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems.
Finally, there is no doubting the value that alcohol brings to people, and I’m sure there was some truth to Winston Churchill’s words. What is even more certain though, are the many ways in which it can destroy your cardiovascular system, and as harsh as that reality might be, it is one that is worth noting. Because some years after he uttered this famous quote, Winston Churchill died from a stroke.
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