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Alcohol and Your Heart: Health Implications

What Drinking Does to Your Cardiovascular System

It is no secret that drinking too much can harm your health. But how does it affect your heart?

"There has been a lot of literature done in the past and current studies in progress that look at how alcohol use impacts the heart," explains Julie Lynn Tsay, MD, a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine. "Overall, it depends on both the amount of alcohol you consume, as well as your existing risk factors."

Stay Aware

If you have cardiovascular disease, prolonged or significant consumption of alcohol can affect the heart in adverse ways, Dr. Tsay says. For example, alcohol use can increase:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Risk and occurrence of atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat that prevents the top chambers of the heart from contracting normally

Long-term alcohol use can also worsen coronary artery disease and increase the risk of heart failure.

Cutting out or limiting your alcohol consumption is an effective way you can reduce your risk of alcohol-influenced cardiovascular disease.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines moderate alcohol drinking habits for adults of legal age as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men.*

Practice Healthy Habits

"In my general practice for patients with cardiovascular disease, I recommend abstaining from alcohol," Dr. Tsay says. "Otherwise, I usually recommend no more than one alcoholic drink per day."

If you do not have cardiovascular disease — and particularly if you are a younger adult — the amount of alcohol you consume is also critical. Little to no alcohol use, or the consumption of no more than one alcoholic drink per day, is ideal for preventing cardiovascular and liver disease, as well as other diseases. 

Besides limiting your alcohol intake, you can help keep your heart healthy if you:

  • Prioritize prevention. Living a healthy lifestyle and practicing healthy habits is the best way to stay out of the hospital and doctor's office.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is the best option for strengthening your heart. Even little things, like taking the stairs instead of an elevator, can be great for your health.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. What you eat impacts your heart, so cut back on proessed, high-fat and greasy foods. Read nutritional labels and look for key phrases like "low sodium" or "no salt added." You could also try a Mediterranean or plant-based diet.
  • Manage your stress. Your cardiovascular system is impacted every time your stress response is activated. Identify what makes you stressed and take time for yourself each day to practice self-care.

Prevention of health issues can be vital in living a healthy life, and that includes taking care of your heart.

"If it is realistic for you, a good practice is limiting daily alcohol consumption to one or fewer standard drinks," Dr. Tsay says. "That's a good direction to go, not only for your heart, but for general health as well."

*Scientists do not always collect information from participants about gender identity. To avoid misrepresenting the results of this research, we use the same terminology as the study authors.