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Is drinking bad for your heart?

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on November 28, 2023

Do you think a glass of red wine over dinner is doing your heart a favor? Alcohol can do only harm to your cardiovascular system. 

Japanese researchers claim that “alcohol consumption is associated with several cardiovascular diseases, such as brain hemorrhage, heart failure and arrhythmia…”

Table of Contents

If you’re struggling with addiction, your chances of suffering a heart attack increase over time. To break free from alcohol dependence, reach out to Ardu Recovery Center. We provide the treatment and support you need to get your health back on track, from detox and therapy to aftercare.

Why is alcohol so bad for your health?

You’ve probably heard this before, but alcohol is detrimental to your overall well-being. And your entire cardiovascular system bears the brunt of the damage.

  • Alcohol suppresses your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off illness and injury. A 2015 study confirmed an “association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects.”
  • Drinking promotes inflammation, which does a serious number on your blood vessels. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver where it generates harmful byproducts that trigger widespread inflammation throughout the body. 
  • Alcohol causes oxidative stress, allowing free radicals to damage the heart. Research shows that alcohol metabolism dramatically increases oxidative stress and reveals that “many cognition-related dysfunctions following alcohol abuse…have further been linked to a higher concentration of CNS ammonia, mitochondrial damage, and oxidative stress caused by increased levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in relevant brain regions.”
  • Heavy drinking can result in nutritional deficiencies that negatively affect your heart health.
  • Alcohol dependence often leads to sleep deprivation. On top of the toll it takes on your overall well-being, it strains your heart. According to a 2022 article, “alcohol is known to increase [the heart rate], and reduce both the high frequency and time-domain components of heart rate variability during sleep, effects that could mediate the disruptions in sleep especially later in the night, and thus the morning-after effects.”
  • Many mental health issues are linked to heavier drinking and heart disease risk.
  • Alcohol also contributes to weight gain. Weight gain puts a further strain on the heart and increases the likelihood of developing conditions such as obesity and diabetes. 

You may think that you’re safe with a more modest alcohol intake. But even moderate alcohol consumption can lead to an increased risk of liver disease, cognitive damage, certain types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

A 2022 study found a “risk-increasing association between all amounts of alcohol consumption and both hypertension and coronary artery disease, with modest increases in risk with light alcohol intake and exponentially greater risk increases at higher levels of consumption.”

If you struggle with heavy alcohol use, once you quit drinking, you’ll probably go through some very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These often lead many drinkers to relapse, but here at Ardu, we provide comprehensive prevention and recovery services, including our relapse prevention program. We’re here to support you on your journey to lasting recovery.

We understand that the decision to end alcohol dependency can be difficult, but it’s also life-changing. Our rehab center welcomes anyone who struggles with addiction.

What are the effects of alcohol on the heart?

Whether you’re having a couple of glasses of wine at dinner or binge drinking, alcohol causes both immediate and lasting damage to your heart and vessels. The greater the alcohol intake, the bigger the health risk. Zhang, et. al. found that “heavy alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of total stroke.”

In the short term, even occasional moderate drinking disrupts normal heart function. You may not feel immediate effects from that glass of wine with dinner, but your heart notices. In the long run, your heart can suffer permanent cardiovascular damage that could be difficult to reverse. 

A 2022 study explains the detrimental cardiovascular effects of chronic alcohol abuse and binge drinking patterns. The results show that:

  • Occasional binge drinking increases the risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke in the long run. 
  • There is a link between compulsive drinking patterns and increased risk of sudden cardiac death, cardiomyopathy, and myocardial infarction over time.
  • Regular alcohol abusers have higher mortality from all causes, including cardiovascular deaths.

The existing body of evidence points to these cardiovascular consequences in heavy drinkers:

  1. Increased blood pressure
  2. Increased heart rate
  3. Arrhythmias 
  4. Dehydration 
  5. Cardiomyopathy
  6. Atherosclerosis
  7. Increased risk of heart failure
  8. Diabetes
  9. Obesity

One: heavy drinking leads to hypertension

Alcohol could lead to a chronic heart condition called hypertension, or high blood pressure. Even a single episode of binge drinking can cause blood pressure to spike to hypertensive levels after alcohol leaves the system. This “hangover” blood pressure rise correlates with the amount of alcohol consumed: the more you have to drink, the higher your morning-after blood pressure.

Here’s what you need to know about the effects of alcohol on your blood pressure:

  • Ethanol, the main substance in alcoholic drinks, is a vasodilator—it relaxes and widens your blood vessels. This lowers your blood pressure, but only temporarily. That’s why you may feel dizzy or flushed after a drink or two. 
  • Ethanol metabolism causes your body to release more hormones that keep your pressure in check. In excess, they cause the blood vessels to narrow. Narrowed blood vessels force the heart to pump harder to push blood through the circulatory system, elevating blood pressure.
  • At the same time, the kidneys retain more fluid, increasing the volume of blood. Now you have more blood flowing through your narrow, constricted vessels. Your pressure rises as your heart is forced to pump harder.
  • Over months and years of sustained heavy drinking, your body tries to get more blood flowing through the narrow vessels, developing into chronic hypertension. 

Many epidemiological studies “have confirmed the relationship between alcohol intake of high amounts of alcoholic beverages and incidence of hypertension.” In one such study, Italian researchers found that “sustained alcohol consumption, above 30 g per day, significantly, and dose-dependently, increases the risk of hypertension.”

According to research, heavy drinkers also have a higher chance of developing secondary hypertension. While primary hypertension is high blood pressure with no identifiable cause, secondary type is caused by an underlying condition. 

…heavy alcohol use was almost invariably associated with increased risk of developing primary hypertension… Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk of insulin resistance and obstructive sleep apnea, known causes of secondary hypertension. 

Down the line, untreated hypertension dramatically escalates your risk for adverse cardiac events such as myocardial infarction, stroke, arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure. These cardiovascular conditions can be serious, debilitating, and even fatal.

Two: alcohol increases heart rate

After a few drinks, you may notice your heart beating faster. The same thing that makes your blood pressure shoot up also makes your heart race. That’s because alcohol is a stimulant and increases your heart rate. 

Ireland, et. al. suggest that “ingestion of alcohol was associated with a highly significant increase in systolic blood pressure and heart rate which occurred before blood alcohol reached its peak concentration.” 

A 2023 study observes “an early and dose-dependent decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure…that was associated with heart rate increase, followed by a late blood pressure rebound.”

Several mechanisms are at play. 

  1. Alcohol triggers the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, stress hormones that rev up your heart. 
  2. It also triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline to get your heart pumping faster. At the same time, these reactions make your blood vessels squeeze tight, so your heart is working overtime while your vessels narrow. 
  3. It blocks parasympathetic nervous activity, which normally slows the heartbeat. (Booze is bad for your nervous system as is.)
  4. Alcohol drops blood sugar levels. This stimulates the release of other hormones that accelerate heart rate. In response to alcohol, your body pumps out extra insulin, which can further spike heart rate.

Faster or irregular heartbeat from an occasional drink may not be a big deal. However, repeated alcohol-induced tachycardia or arrhythmias can, over time, disrupt your heart’s normal rhythms and negatively impact your cardiovascular health.

Three: alcohol can cause arrhythmias

If your heart flutters or beats irregularly after a night of drinking, you may be experiencing alcohol-induced arrhythmias.

As a toxin, alcohol interferes with the electrical pathways controlling your heartbeat. It depresses the central nervous system, which coordinates the signals that make your heart contract properly. A 2020 study demonstrated that “high ethanol concentrations promote reentrant atrial and ventricular arrhythmias.”

Ethanol is responsible for alcohol’s intoxicating effects. High levels of ethanol can increase the likelihood of abnormal, circular patterns of electrical activity in both the heart’s upper (atria) and lower (ventricles) chambers. These irregular electrical patterns, known as reentrant atrial and ventricular arrhythmias, can disrupt the normal heartbeat and potentially lead to serious cardiac complications.

But there’s more to making your heart race than irregular electrical patterns. According to Epstein, “chronic alcoholic patients may experience low blood concentrations of key electrolytes” such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. These important nutrients allow electrical impulses to flow smoothly through your heart. 

Alcohol’s dehydrating effects deplete your body, heart, and vessels of much-needed fluids and nutrients.

Four: alcohol’s dehydrating effects damage the heart

We know booze makes you pee more and lose precious fluids. Its sneaky dehydrating properties can flush your heart health down the toilet. 

When you drink, blood vessels dilate letting fluid seep out of the bloodstream. As your heart rate accelerates, you also breathe faster and sweat more, causing you to lose even more fluid. You may also experience vomiting or diarrhea from ethanol’s toxic effects, which is even worse for your hydration levels. 

On top of making you feel parched the next morning, alcohol can also:

  • Deplete the volume of your blood by making you lose fluid. There’s less for your heart to pump, so it must work harder with each contraction. 
  • Remove needed plasma from the blood, making it thicker and stickier. This increased viscosity strains the heart to pump the sludgy, concentrated blood through vessels. In 1997, Ballard found that “alcohol adversely affects the platelets and other components of the blood-clotting system.”
  • Cause your body to release hormones that constrict blood vessels. Finnish researchers found that “acute alcohol intoxication causes diuresis presumably resulting from inhibition of vasopressin (also called antidiuretic hormone) release.” Your body tries to conserve water when dehydrated, releasing antidiuretic hormones, renin and angiotensin. These hormones trigger vasoconstriction and fluid retention, straining your entire cardiovascular system. 
  • Throw levels of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other electrolytes out of balance. Remember how important these minerals are for electrical signaling? Without them, you can experience dangerous heart arrhythmias as the heart cannot maintain regular electrical rhythms, contract, and pump the blood. 

This fluid loss has immediate and long-lasting impacts on your health, especially your heart. Ditch that bottle for a nice tall glass of water and give your ticker the love it deserves. 

If you or your loved one can’t seem to say goodbye to alcohol, seek help. Early intervention and treatment can be effective in managing alcohol abuse and its associated challenges. You don’t have to face them alone. Our Utah rehab center supports you every step of the way. We offer medically supervised detox, counseling, group support, and holistic rehab therapies.

If you’re ready to take the first step toward a healthier, alcohol-free life, reach out today

Five: heavy alcohol use leads to cardiomyopathy

Alcohol is toxic to your brain, liver, kidneys, and other organs, so why should it be any different for the heart? Maisch shows that excessive drinking “can lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is defined as alcohol toxicity to the heart muscle itself by ethanol and its metabolites.” 

Cardiomyopathy arises when your normally elastic heart muscle fibers (cardiomyocytes) become rigid and stiff. Fibrosis sets in, replacing healthy muscle with scar tissue. The heart walls thin out and the chambers enlarge, resulting in alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Your floppy, weakened heart struggles to contract strongly enough to pump blood efficiently. Cardiac output decreases, leading to fatigue, shortness of breath, and fluid buildup in your lungs and limbs. 

Alcohol’s cardiotoxicity is a result of both short-term and prolonged alcohol abuse.

Alcohol-induced cardiotoxicity can be characterized by acute and chronic [alcohol consumption]. Acute can be defined as large volume acute consumption of alcohol that promotes myocardial inflammation…Chronic alcohol consumption can cause multi-organ damage including myocardial dysfunction. (Shabaan, et. al.)

And let’s not forget high blood pressure. Alcohol-induced hypertension is only adding salt to injury, as the increased blood pressure further stresses your already overworked heart muscle. 

The only treatment is to immediately stop all alcohol intake and allow the heart to recover. Take the first step towards health with our alcohol detox program. Our caring team at Ardu Recovery Center can help you safely detox and start building an alcohol-free life.

Six: alcohol accelerates atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a sneaky condition where fatty deposits and inflammation build up inside the walls of your arteries. This plaque, consisting of cholesterol, fats, and calcium, narrows blood vessels and restricts blood flow over time. 

Research shows that “the association between chronic alcohol ingestion and incident carotid stenosis (advanced atherogenesis) was U-shaped.” This means that excessive levels of alcohol consumption over the years were linked to higher rates of advanced carotid plaque buildup. 

We know that alcohol already causes your blood vessels to narrow by elevating blood pressure. In combination with already clogged arteries, alcohol hastens dangerous build-up in your blood vessels.

Here’s how:

  1. Alcohol increases blood pressure, causing damage to your delicate arterial linings,  already damaged by the accumulated plaque. 
  2. It drives up the circulation of triglycerides while lowering protective HDL cholesterol. A 2017 study demonstrated that “high triglyceride levels in the bloodstream have been linked to atherosclerosis and, by extension, increased risk of [coronary heart disease] and stroke.”
  3. Booze generates inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body. This promotes plaque accumulation.
  4. Blood vessels narrow, slowing down the blood flow to organs including the heart. The myocardium (heart muscle tissue) is starved of oxygen and nutrients. It’s easy for pieces of the accumulated plaque to rupture, create clogs, and block arteries. 

Stock your body on water and other beneficial fluids instead of booze. Your arteries will thank you.

Seven: alcohol abuse results in heart failure

When your heart grows too weak to pump blood for your body’s needs efficiently, you may face an increased risk of heart failure. And alcohol sure sets the stage. Djoussé and Gaziano explain why this happens: 

Heavy alcohol consumption (regardless of beverage type) is associated with alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is characterized by left ventricular dilation, increased left ventricular mass, and reduced or normal left ventricular wall thickness among patients with a long-term history of heavy alcohol consumption (5-15 years).

As always, a combination of factors and mechanisms are at play:

  1. Years of heavy drinking lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy. The chambers stretch as the pumping capacity declines.
  2. At the same time, sustained alcohol abuse accelerates hypertension and atherosclerosis. This increases the oxygen demands of your struggling myocardium.
  3. As cardiomyopathy worsens and blood pressure rises, the heart tries to compensate by working harder. But the overburdened muscle can only keep up with increasing demands for a while.
  4. Eventually, the overwhelmed heart begins to fail. Blood backs up, causing fluid buildup and congestion in the lungs, limbs, and body. You may experience fatigue, shortness of breath, and limited exercise capacity.
  5. In end-stage heart failure, the heart becomes extremely enlarged and too weak to pump. Without mechanical support or a heart transplant, congestive heart failure results in death.

If you are worried about the amount of alcohol you consume, it’s time to get help. Contact Ardu and talk through your options with our caring specialists. Your heart will thank you.

Eight: heavy drinking contributes to diabetes

One too many drinks day after day efficiently paves the path to diabetes. Alcohol wreaks havoc on blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity, based on numerous prospective cohort studies.

A 2009 systematic review and meta-analysis found that excessive amounts of booze may cause type 2 diabetes. More than 60 g/day of alcohol is deleterious for men and over 50 g/day for women. These amounts seem to be a part of the trigger for diabetes. 

Let’s get into the relationship between alcohol consumption and diabetes.

  1. For starters, booze is full of empty calories. It provides energy without nutrition. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, those excess calories lead to added pounds—a major risk factor for obesity and type 2 diabetes. 
  2. Alcohol impairs the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar. At the same time, it makes liver cells resistant to the effects of insulin. This one-two punch disrupts normal glucose metabolism. Korean researchers linked heavy alcohol use to the “disruption of glucose homeostasis and of insulin resistance, which is affected by altered appetite that regulates the peptides and neurotrophic factors.”
  3. Heavy drinking reduces insulin sensitivity in muscles too, preventing sugar from being ushered into cells efficiently. “Acute and chronic ethanol exposure leads to functional insulin resistance, measured as the inability of systemic insulin to suppress lipolysis and insulin-stimulated glucose uptake.” (Lindtner, et. al.)
  4. Alcohol’s potent inflammatory properties can damage insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells.

Over months and years, these metabolic effects of alcohol cause your pancreas to strain in order to overcome insulin resistance. Eventually, it exhausts entirely, resulting in life-long diabetes.

If you want to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, limit alcohol intake—or better yet, quit. It can be excruciatingly hard to stop drinking, especially when you face alcohol withdrawal symptoms

We can help you make that first—and most difficult—step in quitting alcohol for good. At Ardu, our treatment involves safely managing withdrawal symptoms through medical or holistic detox. Our 24/7 medication-assisted treatment helps you relieve symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome that occur when you go cold turkey. 

Can your heart recover from alcohol?

If you’re wondering whether you can undo booze’s damage to your cardiovascular system, the answer is yes—but only if you quit right now. Occasional moderate alcohol intake may cause short-term effects that improve with abstinence. However, the more and longer you drink, the less likely you are to fully turn around cardiovascular and end-organ damage. 

  • Long-term effects of heavy alcohol use include weakened and damaged heart muscle tissue, which results in stretched chambers and inadequate pumping capacity over time. According to Shabaan, et. al., “myocardial depression secondary to alcohol is initially reversible, however, prolonged sustained alcohol use leads to irreversible dysfunction.” 
  • Atherosclerotic plaque accumulation often becomes permanent without major interventions. 
  • Sustained hypertension and inflammation remodel blood vessels to maintain a narrowed state, increasing peripheral resistance. Remember what happens when your blood vessels are narrow and constricted?

When you cut out alcohol for good, you’re giving your heart and your entire cardiovascular system a chance to recover fully. 

Seek help, and give your body proper care and nutrition, there’s always hope. Our holistic treatment helps you detox with the help of medications, exercise therapy, nutrition therapy, and even yoga. Here at Ardu, we take care of your mind and body. 

Does drinking have any beneficial effects on the heart?

We’ve combed through the research and everything seems to indicate that excessive, heavy intake is unequivocally detrimental to your cardiovascular health. However, some research seems to suggest that light-to-moderate drinking may have cardioprotective effects.

A 2006 article suggests that epidemiological studies with 12 sources show a U- or J-shaped relationship between alcohol intake and coronary heart disease—meaning moderate drinking may have some beneficial cardiovascular effects compared to heavier drinking or abstention. While nine sources indicate potential benefits of moderate levels of alcohol consumption, eight sources highlight methodological weaknesses in understanding the true relationship between alcohol intake and vascular risks.

A 2020 study explains that alcohol’s impact on cardiovascular risk is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on how much you drink, how often, and even what type of drink it is.

Given alcohol’s demonstrated dose-dependent associations with many negative outcomes, even moderate intake may outweigh potential benefits for some people, especially those who already struggle with hypertension, heart failure, or a family history of cardiovascular disease.

How much alcohol is too much for your heart?

Excessive drinking will ruin your health organ by organ, but not even moderate drinkers are safe. Light-to-moderate alcohol intake can also have serious cardiovascular consequences. Once you cross into heavy or excessive drinking, your risk of cardiovascular damage rises steeply. 

A standard drink contains about 14 grams or 0.6 fluid ounces of pure ethanol. For healthy men, up to two drinks per day or 14 standard drinks per week is considered moderate. For women, moderate drinking is up to one drink per day or seven per week. More than three drinks a day or 15 per week for men, and more than two per day, or eight per week for women is considered high intake.

Certain populations such as those with family histories, comorbidities, or on medications may need to fully abstain from drinking in order to keep their cardiovascular health in check.

So don’t beat yourself around trying to calculate how much you can safely drink. Any amount of alcohol may negatively impact your heart to some degree. Less is better when it comes to alcohol and heart health, but no alcohol is the best. 

Contact Ardu Recovery Center

Recovery is a deeply personal journey. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, we at Ardu Recovery Center develop customized treatment plans tailored to your specific needs and goals. 

Inpatient treatment at our residential facilities surrounds you with 24/7 support. Outpatient treatment programs, such as partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, offer flexible solutions to maintain your home and work routines or receive treatment while in a sober living facility.

With psychotherapy and other modalities, you learn healthy coping skills so you aren’t tempted to rely on alcohol. A variety of therapeutic approaches, from cognitive behavioral therapy to motivational interviewing to dialectical behavioral therapy, allow you to find the modality that resonates with you.

If you have a co-occurring mental health disorder—such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder—our dual diagnosis treatment program can help you heal both your alcohol addiction and your other mental health issues.

Alcohol and heart FAQ

Can alcohol cause stroke or heart attack?

Habitual heavy alcohol consumption elevates your risk of adverse cerebrovascular and cardiovascular events such as hemorrhagic or ischemic stroke and myocardial infarction. 

According to numerous well-powered prospective cohort studies, meta-analyses, and experimental models, sustained intake above moderate drinking limits promotes hypertension, atherosclerosis, arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation, and increased blood clot formation. When combined, these factors increase the likelihood of an acute thrombotic or thromboembolic event obstructing cerebral or coronary arteries. 

What are the symptoms of a stroke from alcohol?

The major warning signs of an alcohol-attributable cerebrovascular accident include: 

  • Sudden unilateral numbness
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Severe sudden headache
  • Visual disturbances (e.g., blurred or double vision)
  • Trouble speaking
  • Slurred words
  • Inability to understand speech
  • Intense dizziness
  • Vertigo or lack of coordination
  • Confusion or unexplained cognitive changes

Additional symptoms possibly indicating a stroke include nausea, projectile vomiting, behavioral changes, loss of consciousness, or seizure-like activity.

If you have a history of sustained heavy drinking, you are at significantly elevated risk for both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke subtypes. Seek emergency medical attention if you experience any of these neurological red flags. Don’t delay if you have cardiovascular co-morbidities and notice any concerning neurological signs.

Can drinking water help prevent a stroke?

Research indicates that if you drink extra water before, during, or after alcohol consumption, you may potentially lower your risk of a deleterious cardiovascular event. 

Alcohol acts as an intrinsic diuretic due to suppressing vasopressin, a hormone that regulates blood pressure and fluid balance, causing mild dehydration and electrolyte disturbances. These hematological effects synergistically increase blood viscosity and hypercoagulability—they thicken your blood and leave it prone to abnormal clotting. An extra glass or two of water with your favorite alcoholic drink may counteract some of these negative hemorheological impacts. 

Proper hydration also regulates electrolytes such as potassium and sodium that stabilize heart rhythm and electrical conduction. Avoiding dehydration protects the endothelium and maintains blood flow to the brain. 

How much alcohol is safe to drink daily?

No amount of ethanol consumption is entirely safe from a cardiovascular health standpoint. However, the American Heart Association states up to 1 standard drink daily for women and 2 for men is considered “low-risk” intake for otherwise healthy adults. One standard drink equates to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. 

However, even if you adhere to these limits, alcohol may still potentially have adverse effects on your blood pressure, weight, stroke risk, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy prevalence, and other cardiovascular outcomes over decades if consumed regularly according to dose-response epidemiology and Mendelian randomization studies. 


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