Nutrition Articles

The Truth about Alcohol and Heart Health

Is Drinking Actually Good for You?

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The idea that alcohol may be good for your heart has been around for a while. While moderate drinking may offer health benefits, drinking more can cause a host of health problems. So should you turn to alcohol to protect your heart? Here's what you need to know, from what alcohol can really do, to how much you should drink, to which types of drinks—if any—are healthier than others. Use this information in conjunction with your healthcare provider's advice.

Research on Alcohol and Heart Disease
In several studies of diverse populations, moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with a reduced risk for certain cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease. These studies were observational—not experimental—and therefore had some limitations. However, they showed the need for experimental studies regarding alcohol intake and heart disease. So in 1999, a meta-analysis was conducted on all experimental studies to date to assess the effects of moderate alcohol intake on various health measures (such as HDL "good" cholesterol levels and triglycerides), and other biological markers associated with risk of coronary heart disease. As research on this topic continued to expand, researchers conducted another systematic review of 63 studies that examined adults without known cardiovascular disease before and after alcohol use. This latest meta-analysis was published in a 2011 issue of the British Medical Journal (get a link to the full report in the Sources section below).

The analysis of these numerous studies suggests that moderate alcohol consumption (defined below) helps to protect against heart disease by:
  • Raising HDL "good" cholesterol
  • Increasing apolipoprotein A1, a protein that has a specific role in lipid (fat) metabolism and is a major component of HDL "good" cholesterol
  • Decreasing fibrinogen, a soluble plasma glycoprotein that is a part of blood clot formation
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Reducing plaque accumulation in the arteries
  • Decreasing the clumping of platelets and the formation of blood clots
However, these studies did not show any relationship between moderate alcohol intake and total cholesterol level or LDL "bad" cholesterol. And while some studies associated alcohol intake to increased triglycerides, the most recent analysis of moderate alcohol intake in healthy adults showed no such relationship.

What's the Definition of "Moderate" Alcohol Consumption?
A moderate alcohol intake is defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. One drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol and is defined as:
  • 12 fl. oz. of regular beer (5% alcohol)
  • 4-5 fl. oz. of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl. oz. of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)
  • 1 fl. oz. of 100-proof distilled spirits (50% alcohol)
Are Certain Types of Alcohol Better Than Others?
While a few research studies suggest that wine maybe more beneficial than beer or sprits in the prevention of heart disease, most studies do not support an association between type of alcoholic beverage and the prevention of heart disease. At present time, drinking wine for its antioxidant content to prevent heart disease is an unproven strategy. It still remains unclear whether red wine offers any heart-protecting advantage over white wine or other types of alcoholic beverages.

Health Risks of Drinking Too Much
While moderate drinking may have some health benefits, heavy or binge drinking can have a toxic effect on your health and your heart.

Heavy drinking is the consumption of more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week for women and more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men. Heavy drinking in particular can damage the heart and lead to high blood pressure, alcoholic cardiomyopathy (enlarged and weakened heart), congestive heart failure, and stroke. Heavy drinking puts more fat into the circulation in your body, raising your triglyceride level. It's also associated with an increased risk of cirrhosis of the liver, cancer of the gastrointestinal tract and colon, breast cancer, violence, drowning, and injuries from falls and motor vehicle crashes.

Binge drinking is the consumption within 2 hours of 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men. Binge drinking is also associated with a wide range of other health and social problems, such as sexually transmitted disease, unintended pregnancy, and violent crimes.

Who Should NOT Drink
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the following people should not drink alcohol:
  • Adults who cannot restrict their alcohol drinking to moderate levels, as listed above
  • Anyone who is younger than the legal drinking age
  • Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant
  • Anyone taking a medication (prescription or over-the counter) that can interact with alcohol. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the medications you take and alcohol consumption
  • Individuals with certain medical conditions such as liver disease, hypertriglyderidemia, and pancreatitis. Talk to your doctor regarding your health history and alcohol consumption
  • Individuals who plan to drive, operate machinery or take part in other activities that require attention, skill, or coordination or in situations where impaired judgment could cause injury or death, such as swimming
Conclusion
Research indicates that a moderate alcohol intake has been associated with a decreased risk for certain cardiovascular diseases, particularly coronary heart disease. However, health professionals and dietary guidelines suggest that if you don't drink, don't start. There are other, healthier ways to reduce your risk of heart disease like not smoking, eating right, getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. To find out if a moderate alcohol intake is appropriate for you, talk to your doctor about your consumption of alcohol, medical history, and any medications you use.

Sources
American Heart Association. "Alcohol, Wine and Cardiovascular Disease," accessed March 2011. www.americanheart.org.

Brien SE, Ronksley PE, Turner BJ, Mukamal KJ, Ghali WA, "Effect of alcohol consumption on biological markers associated with risk of coronary heart disease: systematic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies," British Medical Journal 2011; 342:d636. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d636.

Rimm EB, Williams P, Fosher K, Criqui M, Stampfer MJ, "Moderate alcohol intake and lower risk of coronary heart disease: meta-analysis of effect on lipids and haemostatic factor," British Medical Journal 1999; 319:1523-8.

United States Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition and Policy Information. "2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans," accessed March 2011. www.cnpp.usda.gov.

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Member Comments

  • Alcohol is a toxin to the body! It is absorbed and stored as FAT!
  • How many people here have telekenetic powers? Raise my hand.
    - Emo Philips
  • God drink wine. I say wine is okay in moderation.
  • I eat and drink I do not go by studies. Live is short to worry about some study.
  • GOBAREFOOT
    The truth about alcohol and heart health
    is drinking actually good for you?
    No ,No it is not I see that this article is out dated The 2015-16 studies found with proper testing and studies alcohol offers no health benefits that is why doctors do not recommend drinking alcohol for heart health rather suggest a healthy diet and exercise I enjoy a drink once in awhile but not because I think it is going to help my heart
  • In spite of this article, your body still metabolizes ALCOHOL as if it were a POISON (that's because in fact it IS). I think that's as crazy as still giving MERCURY as a cure for syphilis.
    Sorry I still limit my alcohol intake. Not to mention its empty calories. I would have thought that would have had no place in this website.
  • I too am troubled by this article. Prefer something else.
  • Like some of the other commenters, I have a family background with a lot of alcholism in it, and even a sibling who was killed by a drunk driver. As a result, I made a decision with my hubby not to drink or take that risk that seems so in my family genes. An article like this is harder for me to read objectively, even tho I have the higher cholesterol issues, and my husband's bp is borderline. Even now, I have a grown son who is over the edge in drinking.
  • Binge drinking led to my high blood pressure and led totally to my weight gain. It's not that I didn't expect it, but they definitely don't tell you about the risk of heart problems associated with alcohol.
  • PREPAREMYTEMPLE
    I don't like the taste of wine so I will stick to eating grapes and drinking grape juice. I am really glad that I don't like wine because I would have become addicted and that would not have been good. Fear of becoming an alcoholic is why I don't drink any liquor. I like some alcohols like rum,gin and grain alcohol and could see myself becoming an alcoholic very easily had I not chose to stop drinking totally.
  • FIFFER88
    I would say that there are other more recent studies that would confirm red wine to possess beneficial properties in helping to increase heart health and decrease the probability of heart disease. For instance, one of its properties includes the molecule resveratrol, a compound found in grapes. However, resveratrol is most potent in red wine as in the wine-making process, the presence of this molecule is condensed. Therefore, red wine aids in cardio protection and also reduces the effects of oxidative stress. If you have access to a public or university library, here is a peer-reviewed source which can lead you to further studies recently conducted on the subject. Cheers!

    Netticadan, T. (2012). Why research on resveratrol-media
    ted cardioprotection should not decelerate. Canadian Journal Of Physiology & Pharmacology, 90(5), iii-vi. doi:10.1139/y2012
    -065
  • COLLEENKELLEY
    My gods, what a mess of judgmental, uninformed comments here! Nowhere did the article state that you must get raging drunk every night to reap the benefits of alcohol - benefits which are, despite what some of you want to believe, well-documented and supported. Binge drinking is not good. You won't see your health improve if you're pounding Red Bull and vodka. But a glass or two of wine a week IS good. I've seen it myself. There is a world of difference between someone who drinks two glasses of wine a week for relaxation and some antioxidants, and an alcoholic. I feel like I lost 20 IQ points reading some of these comments.
  • For me, having 'functional' alcoholic parents, my brother and I have somewhat grown up saying that would never be us.
    The thing for me, is that as a teenager, I always did what I was told to not do. I found myself liking the taste of liquor.
    No, I never drove while intoxicated, (only 1 dui).
    Long story short, I have been alcohol free for almost 6 years.
    It's hard when you prefer for the individual to have that bottle, because without it there mood and attitude is horrible.
  • First of all (after reading all of the comments) this article is JUST informational (it is not implying or pushing that you must drink one drink a day!) for those of you who choose not to drink...it wasn't a message to you saying that you should or you need to drink one drink a day. Lighten up!
    Now for those of us who enjoy a glass of wine every now and again. I enjoyed this article. Do I think drinking is healthy? NO! Will I still have my glass of wine every now and again...yes!

    Oh my goodness...how an article can send people into an uproar. It is just an article...simply that.
  • Ive heard this almost my whole life and always wondered about it. Id always heard Italians drink wine everyday and have much lower rates of heart problems, but they also cook with olive oil, eat alot of seafood, fresh produce, and eat less refined grains lol.

    I think its obvious that alcohol does have many benefits in terms of personal health namely occasional stress relief, but there are definitely healthier and safer ways to increase your heart health than drinking alcohol. Anything can become an addiction if you use it as a cure for something, be it alcohol, food, video games, or even exercise.

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.