These effects are hard to see when we’re drinking because we often concentrate only on the immediate outcomes of using alcohol. They are even difficult to notice the next day since some long-term effects develop slowly over time. Once long-term problems develop, they become harder to treat. Understanding why and how alcohol causes long-term damage may be a motivating reason for someone to cut down on their alcohol abuse.
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Effects of Alcohol on the Cardiovascular System
Alcohol and the heart are an unhealthy combination. Excessive alcohol use has always been associated with harmful cardiovascular risks and disorders. Long-term drinking can cause heart damage, including problems like irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy and stroke. Studies have shown that the more a person drinks, the greater their risk of heart problems and premature death. In fact, alcohol is the third-leading cause of premature death in the United States after smoking and obesity.
Increased and Abnormal Heart Rate
Alcohol can increase how fast the heart pumps blood and can also impair the normal rhythm of the heart. When the heart beats faster, this puts increased stress on the heart muscle in the short-term and can cause muscle damage in the long-term because of how fast the heart is working. Also, when the heart is beating faster, arteries and veins are at an increased risk for vessel damage and clot formation.
Alcohol is also a known risk factor for atrial fibrillation, which is an abnormal heart rhythm in one of the chambers of the heart, the left atrium. In atrial fibrillation, rather than pump blood into the next chamber, the left atrium “quivers,” which causes blood to stagnate and swirl in one spot. This type of rhythm greatly increases the risk of clot formation.
Increased Blood Pressure
Alcohol decreases blood pressure while drinking, but over the next several days, the body compensates by increasing blood pressure. High blood pressure is a key risk factor in stroke and heart attacks because it contributes to damage to blood vessels. Damaged vessels are repaired by the formation of clots, which can break off and become lodged in other parts of the body, cutting off the oxygen supply.
Weakened Heart Muscle
Heavy drinking also weakens the heart muscle, meaning your heart can no longer pump blood efficiently. This condition is known as cardiomyopathy, and it can lead to premature death. Cardiomyopathy is a known risk factor for heart failure, which is a condition where the heart muscle is weakened and cannot pump enough blood to supply the rest of the body. Heart failure causes people to become fatigued much more easily and they often lose their ability to perform rigorous activity and exercise.
Cardiovascular Disease & Other Considerations
The cardiovascular effects of alcohol like increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, abnormal heart rhythm and weakened heart muscle all contribute to an increased clot risk. These risk factors can lead to two kinds of events that encourage clot formation in the veins: damage to the vessels and stagnant blood. Once a clot forms, it can break off and cause heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism. Clinicians see an increase of these risks when people abuse alcohol.
Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?
The American Heart Association (AHA) addresses the idea that drinking small amounts of wine or alcohol in some populations may be beneficial. Past research has shown that low levels of alcohol may be linked to better cholesterol levels. However, recent thinking has called that into question. The supposed benefit that alcohol provides to cholesterol may have been due to other factors that occur along with light alcohol consumption, including increased social interaction and more rounded diets.
The AHA goes on to say that the modest benefit to cholesterol can be obtained from eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. There is no reason to engage in the known health risks of alcohol for a small cholesterol benefit.
Known alcohol risks include the threat of addiction, obesity, stroke, cancer and depression. Given the weight of the risks, the AHA cautions people not to start drinking if they do not already drink alcohol. They also go on to say that there is no scientific proof that alcohol can replace the benefits of conventional lifestyle changes like weight loss, physical activity and a healthy diet.
It has often been said that moderate alcohol use can protect the heart. Knowing what we know now about the cardiovascular risks associated with alcohol, it’s hard to justify drinking at all. However, being aware of these risks alone cannot stop some people who are suffering from alcohol addiction. Luckily they do not have to do it alone. Addiction treatment is a healthy way to learn how to live alcohol and drug-free and take the best care of your body for years to come. People do not need alcohol to solve problems, to maintain health or to prevent heart disease.
If you are concerned about how alcohol is affecting your or a loved one’s heart health, please call The Recovery Village. Our clinicians are trained addiction professionals that can help treat both alcohol dependence and the underlying addiction.
American Heart Association. “Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?” Heart.Org, December 30, 2019. Accessed May 12, 2020.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2020.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” Accessed May 12, 2020.
National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2018.”Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 2018. Accessed May 12, 2020.
O’Keefe, James H, et al. “Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health: The Dose Makes the Poison…or the Remedy.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, March 2014. Accessed May 12, 2020.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.