Alcohol use can seriously impact your heart, but most of the damage is indirect.

Many people wonder if alcohol can cause heart attacks, and for a good reason. Alcohol abuse is a risk factor for heart attacks but does not usually cause a heart attack on its own.

Short- and long-term alcohol use often have different impacts, but in general, an alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction) indirectly contributes to a heart attack by:

  • Increasing blood pressure: As the kidneys work to correct the fluid that alcohol removes from the veins and arteries, the kidneys work to correct this imbalance by releasing proteins that tell the heart that your blood pressure is too low. Blood pressure increases to compensate.
  • Affecting diet habits: An established link exists between heavy alcohol use and poor diet because a person is not absorbing nutrients well, and they crave extra salt because of fluid retention. A salt-heavy diet is associated with an increased risk of a heart attack.
  • Affecting exercise habits: Alcohol use tends to impair the ability to exercise because of its effects of balance, coordination and fatigue. This fact further contributes to the risk of heart disease.

Alcohol’s Impact on Organs Increases Heart Attack Risk

It’s important to understand that alcohol indirectly increases the risk of heart attack by how it impacts the heart and several other important organs and processes in the body.

Alcohol and Heart Conduction

With alcohol in the bloodstream, the heart’s conduction can be affected because alcohol alters the balance of several neurotransmitters, including gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), epinephrine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Neurotransmitters are molecules that carry messages between cells, and your myocardial cells use neurotransmitters to keep time and rhythm with the rest of the heart. 

Heavy alcohol use has been linked to sudden cardiac death (SCD), especially in older men. During SCD, the heart cells cannot keep a regular rhythm, and this causes the heart to stop suddenly. While SCD is not the same as a heart attack, SCD is the largest cause of natural death in the United States. Automated external defibrillators (AED) treat this condition.

Related Topic: Alcoholic cardiomyopathy treatment

Alcohol and the Gastrointestinal Tract

Alcohol is an irritant to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), and this causes inflammation (swelling and redness). Inflammation is the process the body uses to recruit cells from the bloodstream to heal damage.

In the short term, inflammation helps heal, but chronic alcohol consumption causes chronic inflammation, which is damaging tissue and has been shown to lead to different types of cancers, autoimmune disease or cell death. While the death of a few cells is not a big deal (cells die in the body every day) chronic inflammation makes it harder for them to replenish. The ultimate consequence is the essential nutrients do not absorb well and a person can become nutrient deficient. Malnutrition has been shown to contribute to heart disease and heart attack.

Alcohol and Kidney Function

Alcohol is a diuretic and causes the body to lose fluid in a few different ways. The first is by increasing how much urine the kidneys produce. The second (and less obvious way) is that alcohol tricks individual cells to retain more water. The net result is that the blood has less water in it. The kidneys then have to filter a more concentrated solution and are exposed to more harmful toxins. Over time as kidney function declines, these toxins damage other organs like the heart.

Alcohol and the Vasculature System

A person who drinks alcohol heavily will likely have abnormal cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a normal and healthy part of the blood, but they can malfunction. Cholesterol is large molecules that carry lipids to various parts of the body, and lipids are used to construct the membranes of cells.

When there are too many lipids (or too little, in the case of HDL cholesterol), they scratch the inner membranes of the veins and arteries, which causes mechanical damage, and different cells are recruited in the blood to help repair the damage. 

However, since blood is designed to clot when it repairs the damage, it can mistakenly build a clot on the inside of the vasculature system. If this clot continues to build, it can break off and travel to the veins that feed oxygen to the heart. If the clot gets lodged there, the oxygen supply feeding the blood cells is cut off, causing a heart attack.

Alcohol and heart attack recovery is the same as recovering from any other heart attack. Each person is different, but treatment following a heart attack may involve:

  • Reducing or stopping alcohol use
  • Medications to break up the clot in the heart
  • Catheterization, which is when a tube is surgically threaded into the arteries of the heart to help break up the clot
  • Lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise
  • Surgical procedures, if necessary
  • Diagnostic testing by a medical professional
  • Getting sufficient rest
  • Follow-up medical appointments

One of the most important ways to heal from an alcohol-related heart attack is to address the issue of alcohol use. A person’s risk of other heart attacks and other health-related conditions goes up as they continue to drink alcohol. To address the underlying causes of alcoholism, a person can enroll in an alcohol rehab treatment program to overcome addiction with the help of medical professionals.

Can Someone With Heart Disease Drink Alcohol?

Because drinking excessive amounts of alcohol raises blood pressure (a key risk factor for heart attacks) the American Heart Association recommends drinking alcohol in moderation for people who have heart disease. 

Related Topic: Does alcohol lower blood pressure

Moderate alcohol consumption comes out to an average of one or two drinks per day for men and one for women. That being said, each person’s situation varies. If you have a heart attack or heart disease, it is important to speak with your physician to assess whether it’s safe for you to drink alcohol at all.

If you or someone you know needs treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We have facilities located across the country and offer comprehensive treatment programming tailored to each client’s unique needs. To take the first step toward recovery, call The Recovery Village today.

Camille Renzoni
Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
Conor Sheehy
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

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The Mayo Clinic. “Heart Disease – Symptoms and Causes.”“>“Heart[…]nd Causes.” 2018. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.

Kupari, M, and P Koskinen. “Alcohol, Cardiac Arrhythmias and Sudden Death.”“>“Alcoh[…]den Death.” Novartis Foundation Symposium, 1998. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.

Wannamethee, G, and A G Shaper. “Alcohol and Sudden Cardiac Death.”“>“Alcoh[…]iac Death.” British Heart Journal, 1992. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.