Excessive alcohol use cannot directly cause a heart attack but can increase a person’s heart attack risk.

A heart attack is a medical emergency that results from the interruption of blood flow to the heart. Around every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. People with heart disease have an increased risk of a heart attack. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a type of heart disease that develops due to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

Additionally, frequent heavy alcohol drinking can damage the structure and function of the heart before symptoms occur.

This article will explain how heavy drinking can affect the heart and lead to other complications. It will also describe how to help recover from an alcohol-induced heart attack, whether drinking alcohol is safe for people with heart disease, and risk factors.

Alcohol bottles.Share on Pinterest
Yuki Shintani/EyeEm/Getty Images

Heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure, which increases a person’s risk of a heart attack.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define heavy drinking as consuming eight or more drinks per week for women or 15 or more drinks per week for men.

It also defines excessive drinking as consuming four or more drinks in a single session for women or five or more drinks in a single session for men.

Excessive alcohol consumption has many short term effects, including:

  • Injuries: Falls, drownings, burns, and motor vehicle accidents occur more frequently after drinking alcohol.
  • Violence: Heavy drinking increases the risk of violent behavior, which can lead to injuries or assault.
  • Alcohol poisoning: This medical emergency can occur when a person has high blood alcohol levels.
  • Pregnancy risks: Pregnant people may experience miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

The American Heart Association (AHA) explains that drinking excess alcohol can raise triglyceride levels in the blood. High triglyceride levels, in combination with either excess low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or insufficient high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, can lead to fatty buildups in the artery walls. This increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol can affect the heart in the following ways:

  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy: This type of heart disease enlarges and distorts the heart, weakening the muscle and preventing it from pumping blood efficiently.
  • Arrhythmias: A person has an arrhythmia when their heart beats too fast, too slowly, or irregularly.
  • Stroke: A stroke can occur when blood does not flow to the brain properly, leading to the death of brain cells.
  • High blood pressure, or hypertension: This describes high pressure within blood vessels. It can occur when blood vessels narrow or there is more fluid in the body than expected.
  • Interacting with heart medications: For example, some blood thinners may cause gastrointestinal bleeding.

Because alcohol has a high calorie content, a person may gain weight through drinking, leading to high blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the most important risk factors for having a heart attack or a stroke. Obesity is also a risk factor.

Other parts of the body that heavy drinking can affect include the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and immune system.

Learn about 10 health risks of chronic heavy drinking.

Following a heart attack, a person may need to make the following lifestyle changes:

Doctors also recommend that people participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program following a heart attack. This is a supervised program that includes:

  • physical activity
  • education about living healthily
  • counseling to improve mental health

Most people will need to take medication if they have experienced a heart attack. Doctors prescribe medication according to a person’s blood pressure while in the hospital. However, if the individual begins drinking heavily following a heart attack, the medications may not work effectively.

A doctor may also advise a person to abstain from drinking or suggest how much alcohol they can drink safely.

Additionally, some people with alcoholic cardiomyopathy may need a pacemaker or other surgeries.

A person with heart disease can drink alcohol, but it may increase their risk of complications.

According to the United Kingdom’s British Heart Foundation, an individual with a heart condition that causes arrhythmias may be more likely to experience one if they drink alcohol. Additionally, people with inherited heart conditions are at particular risk.

If a person has already experienced an arrhythmia, there is a higher chance of a recurrence.

Some observational studies suggest that moderate alcohol intake may have links to a lower risk of heart disease. A study from the American College of Cardiology suggests that small amounts of alcohol — no more than one drink for women and two for men per day — may calm stress signals in the brain, which may be the mechanism for lower risk.

Stopping drinking or reducing alcohol intake can lower a person’s blood pressure and reduce their risk of a heart attack.

However, the consensus among medical professionals is that the drawbacks of alcohol far outweigh any of its suggested benefits.

Learn more about heart disease.

People with risk factors for heart disease should limit their alcohol intake.

Risk factors include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • family history of heart disease
  • smoking
  • physical inactivity
  • not following a nutritious diet

If a person regularly drinks more alcohol than experts recommend, they can speak with a doctor about cutting back. People with risk factors for heart disease should be particularly cautious.

If a person suspects they are having a heart attack, they should seek immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Learn more about what to do in the event of a heart attack.

People who drink heavily can lower their risk of a heart attack by limiting the amount of alcohol they drink or cutting it out altogether. Following a heart attack, individuals can make lifestyle changes and go on to live healthy lives.

Between 2011 and 2015, excessive alcohol use led to around 95,000 deaths, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 29 years.

Drinking excess alcohol over a long period can damage the structure and function of the heart, increasing a person’s risk of heart attack and heart failure.

A person who drinks heavily might experience complications such as high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and stroke.

Therefore, people with heart disease or risk factors should stop drinking or limit their alcohol intake to reduce their risk of a heart attack.