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Why your heart doesn't love alcohol

Alcohol doesn’t just damage your liver. It can hurt your heart too.

Published: 11 December 2019

Alcohol doesn’t just damage our livers – it can hurt our hearts too.

Knowing more about the risks and warning signs can help you to avoid problems and give your heart the love it deserves.

I thought alcohol was good for the heart?

You might have read stories in the media about alcohol being good for heart health. But unfortunately, the reality is not so black and white.

Sarah Noone, Dietitian at the Irish Heart Foundation, explains: “The newest evidence suggests benefits for heart health of drinking alcohol are less than previously thought and apply to a smaller group of the population."

Very small amounts of alcohol – less than 1 standard drink a day– might have some benefit … But only for certain groups of people, such as women over the age of 55.

Drink more than this limited amount, and alcohol does more harm than good to our heart and circulatory system.

Drinking more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day in middle age increases the risk of having a stroke by more than a third1

What’s more, it seems that any heart-health benefits from drinking are cancelled out by the fact that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of other health problems.

There is no reason to start drinking if you don’t already.

Did you know?

Around 4 in every 5 cases of premature heart disease and stroke could be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes like:

  • Being more active
  • Eating healthily  
  • Stopping smoking
  • Drinking less alcohol

How does alcohol damage the heart?

Long-term heavy drinking is linked to:

  • Heart disease and stroke (cardiovascular disease): Alcohol increases the risk of problems with your heart and circulation. As well as affecting your heart muscle and heart rhythms, heavy drinking can also increase your cholesterol and blood pressure levels and contribute to weight gain, which is also a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Cardiovascular disease is Ireland’s biggest killer.

  • Strokes: The average age of stroke is 5 years younger for daily drinkers than people who drink less. 
  • Atrial fibrillation: This is a type of irregular heartbeat, which may cause palpitations, breathlessness and tiredness. Complications of atrial fibrillation include blood clots, stroke and heart failure.  Every alcoholic drink increases the risk of atrial fibrillation.
  • Weakened heart muscle: Alcohol can stretch the heart muscle, so it’s harder for it to pump blood around your body
  • Heart failure: This means your heart isn’t pumping blood around the body as well as it used to.

If you want to know more about signs of a heart attack or how to recognise a stroke, or for advice about keeping your heart healthy, see the Irish Heart Foundation website.

Alcohol and high blood pressure

Alcohol can increase your blood pressure. High blood pressure (hypertension) means the heart is having to work harder to pump blood around the body.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart and circulation problems like heart attacks and strokes.

Nearly two-thirds of people over the age of 50 in Ireland have high blood pressure.

Left untreated, high blood pressure can also cause problems like:

  • Vascular dementia (dementia caused by not enough blood being able to get to the brain)
  • Eye damage
  • Sexual problems
  • Kidney damage

The good news is that with medication and lifestyle changes, high blood pressure can usually be managed. The Irish Heart Foundation have information on how to manage your blood pressure.

Did you know?

High blood pressure often has no symptoms. Ask your GP to check your blood pressure, especially if you regularly drink more than the low-risk weekly guidelines.

If your doctor says your blood pressure is high and you think alcohol may be a factor, try cutting back or stopping for a time to see if it helps.

If you want to keep your heart healthy, avoid heavy drinking...

Reducing the amount you drink to low-risk levels doesn’t just protect your heart - It can help you feel healthier and happier all round:

  • Reduce your risk of some of the most common killers like liver disease and cancer
  • Improve your mood
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Have more energy and sleep better
  • Relax and enjoy yourself away from the pub and the sofa

Being overweight is also a risk factor for heart disease. If you cut back on alcohol, you’ll be cutting out empty calories that can pile on the pounds and make heart problems more likely.

Did you know?

It would take about 50 mins of circuit training or running to burn off the 500 + calories in a bottle of wine

Is alcohol affecting YOUR health?

We know that the more we drink, the worse it is for our hearts, but do you really know how much you drink?

Irish Heart Foundation dietitian Sarah Noone explains that we tend to underestimate how much we drink:

“There seems to be a real gap between people’s perception of what they drink and what they actually drink."

Add up your weekly intake with our Drinks Calculator to find out if your drinking level might be putting you at risk. 

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