Alcohol affects cholesterol indirectly, and the amount of alcohol consumed affects cholesterol in different ways. Essentially, moderate alcohol consumption can help good cholesterol thrive, while excessive alcohol consumption can indirectly cause a buildup of plaque in the blood.
You may have heard that a glass of wine a day is good for heart health. Several studies show that wine and other types of alcohol, when consumed in moderation, may provide some cardiovascular benefits.
How does alcohol provide these benefits, though? One way is through the effect of alcohol on cholesterol. In moderation, alcohol can increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is thought of as good cholesterol. Good cholesterol removes excess cholesterol particles from the bloodstream. High levels of good cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
It is important to note that the positive heart benefits from alcohol cease when consumption becomes excessive. Excessive alcohol consumption does not increase good cholesterol and can increase levels of triglycerides. High triglyceride levels lead to an increased risk of heart disease, so drinking in moderation is essential.
Article at a Glance:
The following are some important points to consider with alcohol and cholesterol:
- Moderate alcohol consumption can lower cholesterol by increasing levels of HDL
- HDL delivers excess cholesterol to the liver where it can be removed from the body
- Excessive alcohol consumption increases triglycerides
- Like cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides leads to a buildup of plaques in blood vessels which can cause heart disease, blood clots, and stroke
- Red wine contains resveratrol which is known to lower cholesterol
- Other types of alcoholic drinks can lower cholesterol, suggesting that the benefits may come from the alcohol itself
Table of Contents
Understanding Cholesterol Functioning and Alcohol
To understand how alcohol affects cholesterol levels, it’s important to know more about cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance found in all cells of our body. We need cholesterol because it helps with important bodily functions like creating hormones and vitamin D.
However, when cholesterol levels are too high, it can build up in blood vessels in the form of plaque, narrowing or even blocking blood vessels over time. Narrow blood vessels prevent oxygenated blood from reaching important organs like the brain and heart and may lead to coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by the lipoproteins, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL): this is known as good cholesterol because it picks up excess cholesterol from the body and takes it to the liver where it can be removed from the body.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): this is known as bad cholesterol because it can lead to a build-up of plaques in blood vessels. Low-density lipoprotein transports cholesterol throughout the body.
If you have ever had your cholesterol checked, the report likely included triglycerides levels as well. Triglycerides are another type of fat that can build up in blood vessels causing plaque. Like cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
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Moderate alcohol consumption, defined as one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men, increases HDL or good cholesterol. This effect improves the delivery of excess cholesterol to the liver, allowing it to be cleared from the body and making plaque buildup less likely.
However, excessive alcohol consumption does not produce a positive effect on HDL and can increase levels of triglycerides. High triglyceride levels contribute to plaque buildup, so it is important to keep consumption in moderation.
Beer and Cholesterol
The ingredients of beer including barley, hops, yeast, and malt all contain small levels of plant sterols which are compounds known to reduce levels of cholesterol. However, it has been shown that levels of plant sterols in a brewed beer are so low there is virtually no impact on cholesterol. Rather, the positive cholesterol benefits from moderate beer consumption appear to come from the alcohol itself.
Liquor and Cholesterol
Most liquor does not contain much fat or carbohydrates. The caloric content primarily comes from the alcohol itself which lowers cholesterol when consumed in moderation. Be mindful of flavored liquors or mixers that may contain a lot of sugar. Excessive sugar and alcohol can increase triglyceride levels.
Wine and Cholesterol
If you are going to drink in moderation and you’re concerned about alcohol and cholesterol, wine may be your best option. Wine contains resveratrol, which is a plant sterol that can help you maintain the proper balance of good and bad cholesterol, and can also prevent clotting. Wine may benefit cholesterol in multiple ways through resveratrol and the alcohol itself.
Drinking Too Much Alcohol Affects Cholesterol
When you drink excessively, it can increase your risk for a number of heart-related issues. Excess alcohol consumption can lead to (among many other issues) the following:
- Increased triglycerides
- High blood pressure
These factors increase the risk of heart disease. Additionally, too much alcohol increases your risk of congestive heart failure. With congestive heart failure, the heart becomes too weak to pump efficiently. Excessive alcohol consumption can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system, so it is important to keep consumption in check.
Overall, excessive alcohol use is harmful to the cardiovascular system, while moderate consumption can be effective in increasing HDL levels.
Haseeb, Sohaib et al. “Wine and Cardiovascular Health.” Published on October 10, 2017. Accessed April 10, 2019.
Foerster, M et al. “Alcohol drinking and cardiovascular risk in a population with high mean alcohol consumption.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, published February 1, 2009. Accessed April 10, 2019.
American Heart Association. “Alcohol and Heart Health.” Published August 15, 2014. Accessed April 10, 2019.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Cholesterol.” (n.d.). Accessed April 10, 2019.
MedlinePlus. “Triglycerides.” (n.d.). Accessed April 10, 2019.
Muller, Robert, et al. “Does Beer Contain Compounds That Might Interfere with Cholesterol Metabolism?” Journal of the Institute of Brewing, published in 2007. Accessed April 10, 2019.