The effects of heavy alcohol use on the heart are numerous and include high blood pressure, stroke, cardiomyopathy and heart attack.
It is common knowledge that excessive drinking has negative effects on the liver and brain, but what about the heart? How does drinking heavily impact heart health? Are there any warning signs to watch out for that indicate your heart is suffering as a result of your alcohol intake? And, how much alcohol is good or bad for the heart?
The heart is responsible for keeping us alive and supplying the body and brain with oxygen-rich blood so that we can function. When the heart is damaged by alcohol use, this can cause it to work less efficiently and can lead to a number of life-threatening conditions. In this article, we examine the effects of regular heavy drinking and binge drinking on the heart so that you can make better and informed choices around your health.
Most alcohol-induced heart conditions are related to heavy drinking rather than moderate or occasional alcohol use.
According to the CDC, for men, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week. For women, heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight drinks or more per week.
The Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines for men and women are no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Furthermore, these units should be spread out evenly, with at least 3-4 alcohol-free days per week.
Staying within the low-risk drinking guidelines will help to prevent a multitude of alcohol-related conditions. It will also help to protect your heart’s health now and in the long run.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a condition that can result from the effects of alcohol abuse; it occurs when alcohol damages the heart. Any disorder that affects the heart muscle is referred to as cardiomyopathy.
Cardiomyopathy causes the heart to lose its ability to pump blood efficiently around the body. In some cases, the heart rhythm also becomes disrupted, leading to arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).
If you are a heavy drinker and experience irregular heartbeats, it is important that you consult with your doctor. They will be able to determine if your alcohol consumption is having negative effects on your heart and what you can do to resolve it.
Cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol is usually diagnosed by a consultant once they have run the appropriate tests. If your doctor suspects you suffer from this, they will refer you to a hospital consultant for diagnosis.
One form of alcoholic cardiomyopathy is dilated cardiomyopathy. Dilated cardiomyopathy is a progressive condition that can be caused by chronic alcohol or drug use and nutritional deficiencies associated with alcoholism and drug addiction. Most people who suffer from this form of cardiomyopathy eventually develop heart failure.
Dilated cardiomyopathy can develop in people as young as 20 years old with chronic alcohol use. Whilst the prognosis is poor if you continue to drink, quitting alcohol can vastly improve your outcome.
Chronic alcohol use is a well-known cause of dilated cardiomyopathy. Many people with this condition go undiagnosed due to being asymptomatic, even when severe left ventricle dysfunction has been established.
The effects of alcohol on the heart’s left ventricular function can be reversible in most cases. That is, providing the condition is caught before fibrosis develops and alcohol use is ceased.
A number of small studies have shown that abstaining from alcohol completely before fibrosis is established results in a significant improvement in the heart’s left ventricular performance.
If you are diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and continue to drink and do not seek help for your alcohol use, you risk heart failure. As many as 42% of patients with this condition die from heart failure within 3 years of diagnosis.
High blood pressure can lead to problems with the heart. If your alcohol consumption is excessive, then this can affect your blood pressure health.
Heavy drinking and regular drinking can trigger the release of hormones into the bloodstream that cause blood vessels to constrict. This forces the heart to work harder and in turn, raises your blood pressure.
Over time, high blood pressure puts additional strain on the heart, which can then cause cardiovascular diseases to develop.
Many people who have high blood pressure do not realise that they suffer from it. Furthermore, if it is caused by heavy drinking, they may not even want to acknowledge it.
High blood pressure is more common in adults over the age of 40. If you worry the effects of alcohol are negatively impacting your heart, getting your blood pressure checked would be your first port of call. You can get your blood pressure checked at your GP’s or local chemist.
High blood pressure is asymptomatic in most people, yet it affects one in every four adults. If you drink regularly and heavily, your chances of high blood pressure increase.
Alcohol-related high blood pressure can be easily remedied by reducing or stopping drinking altogether. Medications can also be prescribed by your doctor to help lower your blood pressure, and lifestyle changes can complement these medications.
The heart can be negatively affected by alcohol in a number of ways. Here we look at the effects of alcohol on the heart, both immediate and long-term.
Alcohol can increase your heart rate when consumed to excess. It can also interfere with the heart’s electrical signals and cause tachycardia and arrhythmia. Recurring episodes of tachycardia (where the heart rate increases due to problems with the electrical signals) can lead to blood clots developing that can cause a heart attack or a stroke. This is very different from elevating your heart rate through exercise, which has health-improving effects.
Drinking alcohol has the immediate effect of temporarily raising your blood pressure. Whilst drinking within the Chief Medical Officers’ safer drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units per week, evenly spread out for both men and women, will generally not cause long-term issues, regularly exceeding this can cause alcohol-related hypertension (high blood pressure).
Alcohol-related hypertension can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries. Arteries are the veins responsible for pumping oxygen-enriched blood from the heart to the body’s organs and tissues. Hardening and thickening of the arteries reduce blood flow from the heart and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
As previously mentioned, drinking large amounts of alcohol interferes with the heart’s electrical impulses, which control the regularity of the heartbeat. The effects of alcohol, especially when consumed in excess, can cause the heart to beat abnormally (arrhythmia). It can also cause it to beat too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia). These arrhythmias can be fatal if not corrected and can cause cardiac arrest or stroke.
The most common form of alcohol-induced arrhythmias of the heart is arterial fibrillation. Arterial fibrillation happens when the heart’s electrical signals start firing into the atria, causing an irregular and erratic heartbeat. If this happens, you may feel fluttering or thumping in your chest.
Arterial fibrillation most commonly happens after a period of heavy drinking. It can also happen after a prolonged period of alcohol consumption and results from the cumulative effects of alcohol on the heart muscle. This type of arrhythmia, both acute and sustained, can also cause a blood clot to form, leading to a stroke.
The effects of alcohol can lead to increased levels of cholesterol which is bad for your heart and liver. When consumed, alcohol is broken down in the liver and built into cholesterol and triglycerides. These are then released into the bloodstream. Cholesterol, when consistently high, is a known risk factor for heart disease.
A consistently high level of triglyceride levels caused by alcohol can also contribute to fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease compromises your liver’s ability to process alcohol and remove cholesterol from your bloodstream. This results in high blood/cholesterol levels. Consistently high cholesterol can cause deposits to form in your blood vessels. These deposits can then grow and break off, causing a blockage and resulting in a heart attack or stroke.
Moderate and occasional alcohol use is associated with lower levels of cholesterol. If you are worried that alcohol may have impacted your cholesterol levels, your doctor can perform a simple blood test.
If you have high cholesterol, you are advised to cut back on alcohol and make healthier lifestyle changes. Medication known as Statins can also be prescribed to help lower the levels of cholesterol in your liver and blood.
In addition to alcohol’s effects causing heart complications when used in excess, other conditions can also develop, which can affect your heart’s health.
High alcohol intake is often associated with obesity. Alcohol is often full of calories, and when consumed regularly and to excess, your body stores it as fat. This can lead to weight gain. Some individuals are more likely to binge on unhealthy foods whilst drinking, as alcohol can stimulate a person’s appetite. It also inhibits self-control, meaning that you would eat more than normal.
Alcohol, especially in men, can have the effect of increased weight gain around the stomach. This is another recognised risk factor for heart disease. Additionally, increased alcohol intake is associated with increased levels of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone), which again has been linked to weight gain.
Obesity from alcohol use can result from a number of factors but is most closely linked to heavy alcohol use. Frequently consuming too much alcohol can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes, which has negative effects on the heart as well as many other functions of the body
Type 2 diabetes develops when the body can still make some insulin but not enough to control blood sugar levels. It can also develop when the body becomes resistant to insulin.
How does heavy drinking impact heart health?
If you are prescribed medications for your heart, it is best not to drink alcohol. The effects of alcohol on heart medications may make them work less effectively.
If you take statins for high cholesterol and combine them with alcohol, this could cause damage to your liver. Medications for diabetes and blood thinners such as warfarin can also interact with alcohol. It is important to discuss safe alcohol use alongside any heart medications you are prescribed with your doctor.
Whilst it is plain that heavy alcohol use can impact your heart’s health in many negative ways, stopping or reducing your alcohol intake can reverse many alcohol-related heart conditions.
If you want or need help to stop drinking but are struggling, professional advice is available.
Rehab Guide can provide you with a full medical alcohol detox to ensure that you stop alcohol safely and comfortably.
If you are worried that the effects of alcohol are causing you heart problems, call us today. Our friendly experts will take a free and confidential assessment of your treatment needs. We are here to listen to your story and get you the urgent help you need.