When it comes to alcohol we often think about the liver. But drinking too much also raises our risks of heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and stroke.
Many of us under-estimate the risks or assume it won’t happen to us because we like to think of ourselves as moderate drinkers. But in reality alcohol causes over 200 diseases, conditions and injuries – and many of us are drinking more than we think.
The UK's Chief Medical Officer (CMO) recommends that to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.
There are a lot of mixed messages out there about alcohol’s effects on the heart – but the fact is that drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol can have a harmful effect on your heart and general health. https://www.stroke.org.uk/resources/alcohol-and-stroke
Drinking too much regularly and over a long period of time can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella name for conditions that affect your heart or circulation, which include high blood pressure, stroke and vascular dementia. It is one of the biggest causes of death and ill-health in the UK.
Research shows there is a clear link between regularly drinking too much alcohol and having high blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure (hypertension) puts strain on the heart muscle and can lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD), which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Drinking alcohol to excess can cause other serious health conditions, such as cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscle is damaged and can no longer pump blood as efficiently, and arrhythmias – abnormal heart rhythms. Cardiomyopathy can be life threatening.
Binge drinking can also increase your risk of developing an irregular heart rhythm, such as atrial fibrillation.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
More than 1 in 4 adults nationally are living with high blood pressure – and it is estimated that around 600,000 people in the North East are living with hypertension.
Regularly drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels which can lead to other serious health conditions. Alcohol is also high in calories so it can lead to weight gain, which also increases the risk of heart and circulatory diseases.
High blood pressure means that your heart must work harder to pump blood around your body. It puts a strain on your arteries and your heart, which increases your risk of a heart attack or a stroke.
If you drink regularly, by limiting your alcohol intake, and having more drink-free days, you can help lower your blood pressure.
Alcohol can increase your risk of stroke, even if you don’t drink very large amounts. And if you’ve had a stroke, alcohol could increase your risk of another stroke.
This is because alcohol contributes to a number of medical conditions that are risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight, an irregular heartbeat and liver damage.
- High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke, as it contributes to over 50% of all strokes in the UK.
- If you drink more than the recommended low-risk drinking guidelines you increase your risk of getting type 2 diabetes, and diabetes almost doubles your risk of stroke.
- Being overweight increases your risk of having a stroke, so if you regularly drink lots of alcohol it can be difficult to maintain a healthy weight due to most alcoholic drinks being very high in calories. Alcohol consumption has been estimated to account for nearly 10% of the calorie intake of those who drink.
- Excessive drinking can also trigger atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat, which is linked to an increased risk of stroke.
- Liver damage from too much alcohol can stop the liver from making substances that help your blood to clot. This can increase your risk of a stroke caused by bleeding in your brain.
But isn’t alcohol good for your heart?
It is a common myth that drinking is good for the heart. But overall, the risks are likely to outweigh any possible benefits.
The Chief Medical Officer advice highlights that any benefits for heart health of drinking alcohol apply to a smaller group of the population than previously thought. The only group with potential to have an overall benefits is women over the age of 55 – and even then only at low levels – around five units a week or less (the equivalent of around two glasses of wine a week.)
What should I do?
Alcohol can have a serious long-term effect on your health and if you want to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease or having a stroke, then you should drink no more than 14 units a week (around six pints or lager or a bottle and a half of wine), spread over a number of days. The British Heart Foundation advises that there are safer and healthier ways to protect your heart. It is more important to start doing more physical activity, eat a healthy, balanced diet and to stop smoking.