Is Alcohol Bad for Your Heart?

Is there such a thing as healthy alcohol? Maybe. But nothing’s good for you if you have too much of it over a long period of time.

Though you likely already know too much alcohol can damage your liver and increase your risk of more than one type of cancer, you might not know that it doesn’t affect your heart the way you may have heard recently.

Effects of alcohol on the body

Two wine glasses

Two wine glasses | ValentynVolkov/iStock/Getty Images

Alcoholic beverages are not a product humans biologically need to consume. This means that whenever you have even one serving of wine, beer, or whatever your preferred drink of choice, your body doesn’t really know what to do with it.

Your liver┬ámetabolizes the alcohol you take in so it won’t poison you and gets rid of it as waste. The extra calories go where all extra calories go … straight into your fat cells. And that doesn’t include the side effects — you know the ones. Dehydration, impaired reaction time, the dreaded morning-after hangover …

These are just the short-term side effects, of course. If you have too many drinks too many days for too many years, you’re putting yourself at risk for:

  • Liver damage
  • Cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • A weakened immune system
  • Mood and behavior changes.

In addition to all these possible complications of alcohol overuse, drinking too much can also affect your heart — in more ways than one.

Is alcohol bad for your heart?

If you have a drink or less per day, you’re probably not in immediate danger of heart trouble — unless your doctor has told you not to and you keep doing it anyway. But more than a few drinks day after day will start to wear down your heart — literally.

Over time, alcohol overuse can cause your heart muscle to stretch and weaken — a dangerous condition called cardiomyopathy. It can also cause irregular heartbeat and increase your risk of developing high blood pressure or having a stroke.

Drinking too much also involves taking in a lot of extra calories. This increases your risk of health conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, which in turn increase your heart disease risk.

You’ve probably heard that red wine is actually good for your heart — and maybe a little bit here and there can be. But the American Heart Association cautions that studies linking red wine consumption with heart health benefits may not say what we’ve come to think they’re saying.

Research that discusses the positive relationship between the Mediterranean diet and heart health, for example, often lump red wine into the list of beneficial elements. But the cited benefits might not have anything to do with wine. People who follow that diet might be in better heart health because of vegetables or whole grains — not because of alcohol.

Don’t let assumptions like these trick you into thinking it’s OK to drink more — or continue drinking the same amount you’re already drinking. Experts warn that drinking too much can do more harm than good, even if you don’t realize it’s happening to you.

How much alcohol is healthy to drink?

Alcohol

Alcohol | Bogdanhoda/Getty images

Experts give general guidelines to help you determine how much alcohol you should have in a week to stay healthy and safe.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains the breakdown of different “drinking levels” as follows:

  • Moderate drinking — 1 drink per day for women, 2 for men
  • Binge drinking — 4/5 or more drinks (women/men) within several hours
  • Heavy alcohol use — binge drinking 5 or more days in the past 30 days

If you’re worried about your heart health related to your usual alcohol intake, consider saving a few glasses of wine for Friday or Saturday nights, or reserve drinking for special occasions.