Alcohol does not contain any cholesterol. However, because alcohol filters through a person’s liver, drinking too much can have a negative impact on cholesterol levels and heart health.

This article will discuss the links between alcohol and cholesterol, including any associated health risks.

It will also explain the recommended alcohol intake, healthy cholesterol levels, and when to contact a doctor about related health concerns.

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To understand how alcohol consumption and cholesterol levels may be linked, it can be useful to get some basic facts about each substance. The sections below look at each of these in more detail.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a legal recreational substance present in wine, beer, and spirits.

In the United States, more than 85% of people over the age of 18 years have consumed alcohol at some point, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In addition, almost 15 million people aged 12 years and older have alcohol use disorder.

Although alcohol does not contain cholesterol, a person’s body may have difficulty processing it, which can lead to health problems.

In addition, mixed drinks — such as cocktails — may have high amounts of sugar that can affect cholesterol levels. In turn, this can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that travels through the bloodstream and is used by the body’s organs and cells.

The body makes enough cholesterol to serve its needs, but a person may consume additional dietary cholesterol through certain foods, such as red meat, shellfish, eggs, and some dairy products.

There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

LDL is sometimes known as “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in the body and create a sticky substance called plaque. Over time, plaque sticks to the insides of arteries, making them narrow and hard in a condition called atherosclerosis. Blood is unable to flow freely around the body, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

HDL is sometimes known as “good” cholesterol because it collects LDL from the arteries and returns it to the liver, which breaks it down and removes it from the body.

Learn more about maintaining healthy HDL levels here.

According to the American Addiction Center (AAC), drinking more than moderate amounts of wine, beer, or liquor — such as vodka, whisky, and gin — can have a detrimental effect on a person’s health, including causing elevated cholesterol levels.

In addition, the type of alcohol a person consumes can have different effects on the body. The following sections will look at these types and their effects in more detail.

Wine

Consuming moderate amounts of red wine, which means no more than 5 ounces (oz) per day, is linked to healthy cholesterol levels, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

However, there is no proven cause-and-effect link showing any heart health-related benefits from drinking any form of alcohol.

The AHA add that although some antioxidants and flavonoids present in wine may have the potential to reduce heart disease risk, these compounds are also present in other products, such as red grape juice, blueberries, and grapes.

Beer

Beer has a particularly negative effect on triglyceride levels. The AAC list alcohol as a drug that can interact with the body to produce high levels of LDL or triglycerides.

Elevated triglycerides may cause a thickening in the blood vessels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease or stroke.

Liquor and cocktails

People often mix liquor, such as rum and vodka, with sugar-based liquids, such as soda, syrups, and fruit juices. Not only can liquor increase the levels of triglycerides in a person’s body, but the sugar provides excess calories and can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The AHA do not recommend drinking wine or any other form of alcohol to gain potential health benefits.

As well as increasing cholesterol levels, drinking alcohol increases the risk of high blood pressure and various cancers, including breast cancer.

The risks increase with the amount of alcohol a person drinks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is even the case when consumption is at levels considered moderate.

In general, for optimum health benefits, people should either avoid alcohol altogether or only drink it in moderation. This means up to two drinks per day for males, and up to one drink per day for females, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. The guidance adds that some people, such as pregnant people, should avoid alcohol altogether.

One drink is measured as follows:

  • 12 oz of 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) beer
  • 8 oz of 7% ABV malt liquor
  • 5 oz of 12% ABV wine
  • 1.5 oz of 40% ABV (80 proof) distilled spirits

Binge drinking

Binge drinking can increase a person’s risk of blood clots, stroke, and heart failure.

According to the AHA, binge drinking means males consuming five or more drinks in 2 hours and females consuming four or more drinks in 2 hours.

Doctors use a blood test called a lipoprotein panel (lipid profile) to check cholesterol levels. This test measures:

  • total cholesterol, including LDL and HDL cholesterol
  • LDL cholesterol
  • HDL cholesterol
  • non-HDL, or total cholesterol minus HDL cholesterol

A person’s optimum cholesterol levels, measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) below, will depend on their age and sex:

Age and sexTotal cholesterolNon-HDLLDLHDL
Under 19 years, male or femaleUnder 170 mg/dlUnder 120 mg/dlUnder 100 mg/dlMore than 45 mg/dl
Over 20 years, male125 mg/dL–200 mg/dLUnder 130 mg/dlUnder 100 mg/dl40 mg/dl or higher
Over 20 years, female125 mg/dl–200 mg/dlUnder 130 mg/dlUnder 100 mg/dl50 mg/dl or higher

High cholesterol levels cause no symptoms, so diagnosis relies on the results of a lipid profile test.

Most adults should have a lipid profile test as part of a regular medical exam every 4–6 years. Adults who are at high risk of heart disease, who previously had elevated cholesterol levels, or who are currently receiving treatment for elevated cholesterol levels should undergo more frequent checks.

If a person is concerned about how much alcohol they drink or needs help to stop drinking alcohol, they should speak with their doctor. They may suggest medications or provide a referral to a support group or specialist counselor.

Although alcohol does not contain cholesterol, its consumption can have a negative impact on cholesterol levels. This is because the body breaks alcohol down into triglycerides that can increase levels of LDL, or bad, cholesterol.

The sugar content in alcoholic drinks and mixers can also lead to higher cholesterol levels.

Adults should get their cholesterol levels checked by a doctor every few years. Anyone who is worried about their drinking habits should also speak with a doctor.