Drinking alcohol can harm the heart. This is particularly true with excessive drinking behaviors, such as binge and heavy drinking. These can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The effect of alcohol on cardiovascular health is complicated. However, evidence suggests an association between consuming alcohol and problems with the cardiovascular system.

Previous research indicated a potential link between moderate drinking and certain heart benefits. However, newer research suggests that drinking alcohol in any amount could be harmful.

Read on to learn more about the effect of alcohol on heart health.

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Many studies suggest a strong link between high alcohol intake, or binge drinking, and high blood pressure and thickening of the heart muscle.

Alcohol can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. One way alcohol raises blood pressure is by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and the release of adrenaline.

Adrenaline has a significant effect on the cardiovascular system in that it causes arterioles to constrict and tighten. Arterioles are small blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart. Consequently, this increases blood pressure and the amount of blood pumped out of the heart.

Other ways alcohol affects the body to increase blood pressure include:

  • activating the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS), which helps regulate blood pressure
  • impairing the function of the lining of blood vessels, known as endothelial dysfunction
  • causing vasoconstriction, which is the narrowing of blood vessels

High blood pressure damages the arteries over time, making them less elastic and stretchy. As the severity of the damage increases, it increases a person’s risk of heart attack, heart disease, and heart failure.

Read on to learn more about alcohol and blood pressure.

Alcohol, in particular, can increase the risk of several conditions that fall under the term CVD.

These conditions are:

A 2022 study notes that while some evidence indicates a potential cardioprotective benefit of light to moderate alcohol intake, these benefits may instead relate to other factors. It also notes that excessive alcohol intake could also increase the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart attack.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age try to avoid drinking alcohol if possible. But if a person decides to start drinking, they should consume it within the recommended limits. For males, this is two drinks per day or less. For females, it is one drink per day or less.

For some groups of people, the guidelines advise avoiding drinking alcohol altogether. These groups include:

  • pregnant people
  • anyone under the age of 21 years
  • anyone who is taking medications that could interact with alcohol
  • people with health conditions that alcohol can affect
  • anyone with a condition that prevents them from controlling how much they drink

U.S. standard drink sizes

Alcohol by volume (ABV) is a measure of how much alcohol is in a given drink. Drinks with a higher concentration of alcohol have a higher ABV. The size of a serving — as set by the Department of Agriculture — depends on how strong that drink is. As the ABV increases, the serving size decreases.

Standard U.S. drink sizes include:

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

Read on to learn more about ABV.

It is important to note that there is no causal link to suggest that drinking, even moderately, contributes to better heart health.

Historically, some studies suggested that when people drank alcohol moderately, they experienced protective cardiovascular benefits. However, researchers now argue that scientists misinterpreted these perceived benefits.

Instead, factors that coincided with moderate drinking, such as favorable lifestyle choices and, in some cases, the socioeconomic environment, were responsible. As such, evidence instead suggests that drinking alcohol in any amount can be harmful.

Newer research indicates that drinking alcohol, even within the recommended limits, could increase the risk of several types of cancer and even cardiovascular disease. This is why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that adults who do not drink alcohol should avoid starting, if possible.

It is best for people with heart conditions to avoid alcohol or, at the very least, reduce their consumption if they drink excessively.

The recommended limits outlined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are two drinks per day for males and one drink per day for females.

Some medications for heart-related conditions, such as high blood pressure and angina, interact with alcohol. For this reason, people taking these medications should generally avoid drinking. Alcohol may reduce the effectiveness of these medications or cause side effects. These medications may include:

Heart-related conditionMedicationReaction with alcohol
angina (chest pain) and coronary heart disease• isosorbide
• nitroglycerin (Isordil)
• rapid heartbeat
• sudden change in blood pressure
• dizziness
• fainting
blood clotswarfarin (Coumadin)• internal bleeding
• blood clots
• stroke
• heart attack
high blood pressure• quinapril (Accupril)
verapamil (Calan)
hydrochlorothiazide (Capozide)
• doxazosin (Cardura)
clonidine (Catapres)
• dizziness
• drowsiness
• fainting
• irregular heartbeat or changes in heartbeat
high cholesterol• lovastatin and niacin (Advicor)
• lovastatin (Altocor)
• rosuvastatin (Crestor)
• atorvastatin (Lipitor)
• lovastatin (Mevacor)
• liver damage
• flushing and itching (relating to niacin only)

After a person undergoes heart surgery, it is best to ask the doctor how much they should drink, as this could depend on individual circumstances and medical history.

Drinking alcohol can harm the heart. According to 2022 research, any amount of alcohol can have a negative impact on the heart and cardiovascular system. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people avoid drinking when possible. However, if someone wants to drink, it is best to stay within the recommended limits.

Anyone taking medication for heart-related conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and angina should check whether their medication interacts with alcohol. If it does, doctors advise not consuming alcohol, as a person may experience a serious reaction. Health experts may also advise individuals with cardiovascular disease or other chronic conditions to avoid alcohol if possible.