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Alcohol and Your Heart

A number of studies have shown a link between moderate drinking and a lowered risk for heart attack, heart and blood vessel diseases, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and gallstones.

Alcohol may have some health benefits. But it may lead to abusive drinking and other diseases. Because there's no sure way to know who will have an abuse problem, the American Heart Association (AHA) and other experts don't advise drinking alcohol to gain possible health benefits. Talk with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks of moderate alcohol use.

Learn the meaning of moderation

Moderate drinking is defined as no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men. A drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 4 ounces to 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Pregnant women should avoid all alcohol because it can lead to birth defects.

Moderation is different for men, women, and older adults. This is because alcohol’s effects depend on how the body absorbs and breaks down alcohol. Older adults break down alcohol more slowly than younger people. This means alcohol stays in their bodies longer. A person's height and weight also impact how alcohol is absorbed. The smaller and lighter you are, the more quickly alcohol is absorbed. People from some ethnic groups also have a harder time breaking down alcohol. Even small amounts can have a big effect on their bodies.

Know how you react to alcohol

People respond differently to alcohol for other reasons besides height and weight. This includes gender, age, genetics, and overall health. The amount of alcohol you drink, when you drink it, and any history of problem drinking can also affect your reaction to alcohol.

When alcohol is taken into the body, it passes from the stomach and small intestine into the blood. Then it's carried to all organs of the body. Alcohol can be dissolved in water, so it enters your organs in proportion to the amount of water they hold. The more water available in the organs to soak up alcohol, the less alcohol remains in your bloodstream.

Your liver does most of the work of breaking down alcohol. The liver removes alcohol from your body so it won't damage other organs. But, the liver can break down only a certain amount of alcohol per hour, regardless of the amount you drink. A very small percentage of alcohol escapes this process and is eliminated unchanged in your breath, sweat, and urine. Until all the alcohol in the body has been broken down, it stays in the brain and other tissues of the body and continues to cause effects.

Men vs. women

In general, women and older men have less water in their organs than younger men. Therefore, less alcohol enters their organs and more alcohol stays in their bloodstream. Younger women make less of the stomach enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This means more alcohol is available to be soaked up into the blood. As a result, a young woman will have a higher blood alcohol level than a man of the same age who drinks the same amount of alcohol.

Heredity may play a role in how alcohol and your body act together. Moderate drinkers who have genes that cause a slower breakdown of alcohol are at much lower risk for heart and blood vessel disease than moderate drinkers who have genes that cause rapid breakdown of alcohol.

Alcohol is broken down more slowly when it's soaked up. The process of soaking up alcohol is slowed when you drink alcohol during or right after a meal. The slower soaking up process lets the liver break down alcohol at a rate that keeps more of it from reaching other organs.

Because the liver breaks down alcohol, people with liver disease are more sensitive to drinking. Certain medicines may cause harmful reactions if you drink while taking them. Alcohol affects the breakdown of a wide variety of medicines by increasing the activity of some and decreasing the activity of others. Most notably, heavy alcohol consumption when taking acetaminophen can lead to liver damage. 

Also, for people with a history of alcoholism, the danger of drinking is far greater than the possible heart and blood vessel benefits.

Health benefits and concerns

The AHA says moderate alcohol consumption helps protect against heart disease by raising HDL ("good") cholesterol and reducing plaque buildup in your arteries. Alcohol also has a mild blood thinning effect. This keeps platelets from clumping together to form blood clots. Moderate drinking may lower the risk for heart disease among men older than 45 and women older than 55. Moderate consumption provides little, if any, health benefit for younger people. And the risk of alcohol abuse increases when drinking starts at an early age. Remember that alcohol doesn't give complete protection against heart disease.

In addition, excessive drinking can raise triglyceride levels. It also increases blood pressure, and raises the risk for stroke. It can also raise the risk for abnormal heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation.

Consider alcohol's caloric content

While there's no fat in alcohol, there are 7 calories per gram. That translates to between 100 calories and 150 calories for the alcohol in a typical beer, wine, or spirits drink. Add to that the calories in drink mixers, and drinking could be a setup for weight gain.

Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2021
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.