Alcohol and your heart: what you need to know

June 21, 2018 | by Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

The summer barbecue and festival season brings a host of opportunities to raise a glass of your favorite adult beverage. As a dietitian, I field a lot of questions about whether alcohol has a place in a heart-healthy diet.

Here are some topics that come up in my workshops and in one-one-one counseling sessions with patients:

Does alcohol offer some cardiovascular benefits?

Moderate consumption of alcohol can provide a small boost to HDL (good cholesterol). It also reduces stress, which can help lower blood pressure, at least temporarily, and there seems to be a link between light consumption of alcohol and a reduction in blood clotting. Better numbers for blood pressure and clotting may reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack.

Some research suggests the benefits are especially evident in red wine, which contains certain antioxidants such as resveratrol. In addition to reducing clotting, this substance may help dilate and protect the lining of blood vessels, and reduce LDL cholesterol.

More research is needed to establish a cause and effect relationship between red wine and healthier hearts. The people studied may have had other healthy habits that led to a lower incidence of heart disease.

What are the risks?

Heavier drinking restricts blood vessels and puts you at higher risk of high blood pressure and stroke. It can also contribute to other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high triglycerides and obesity. Excessive intake of alcohol also increases the risk of cancers of the breast, liver and esophagus, as well as dementia and other neurological problems.

How much alcohol consumption per day is considered “moderate?”

For men: two 12 oz. beers (up to 5 percent alcohol content) or two 4 oz. glasses of wine or two 1 oz. shots of 100 proof spirits, or two 1.5 oz. shots of 80 proof hard liquor.

For women: one 12 oz. beer, or one 4 oz. glass of wine, or one 1 oz. shot of 100 proof spirits, or one 1.5 oz. shot of 80 proof spirits.

If I don’t drink on weekdays, can I save up the daily “quota” and use it all on the weekend?

No, I’m afraid it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” You have the same limit on a given day even if you skip day(s) at other times during the week.

If I drink, should I switch to red wine?

If you enjoy red wine as much as other types of alcohol, consider switching to red. It may offer some added benefit over other drinks.

Do some heart conditions call for cutting out alcohol altogether?

People who have a history of heart failure or hemorrhagic stroke should avoid alcohol. If you have any other heart condition or diabetes, talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.

If I don’t drink now, should I start?

Health associations across the board, including the American Heart Association, suggest that people do NOT start drinking to improve heart health.

If you choose to drink, watch those ounces and enjoy a fun and heart-healthy summer.

To find out if you’re at risk for heart disease, take an online HeartAware assessment. You can also call 877-45-HEART to schedule a heart scan or schedule an appointment online.

Learn more about heart and vascular services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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