Alcohol and Your Heart

No amount of alcohol intake is healthy, and it may lead to abusive drinking and other diseases. The American Heart Association (AHA) and other experts don't advise drinking alcohol to gain rumored health benefits. Talk with your health care provider about the risks of alcohol use.

Health Concerns Related to Alcohol

Excessive drinking can raise triglyceride levels. It also increases raises the risk for stroke and heart conditions like abnormal heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation.

While there's no fat in alcohol, there are 7 calories per gram. That translates to between 100 calories and 150 calories for the alcohol in a typical beer, wine or spirits drink. Add to that the calories in drink mixers, and drinking sets you up for weight gain.

What Is Considered “Moderate” Drinking

While no amount of drinking is considered healthy, moderate drinking is less harmful than excessive drinking.

Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. A “drink” is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 4 ounces to 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Pregnant women should avoid all alcohol because it can lead to birth defects.

Moderation is different for men, women and older adults. This is because alcohol’s effects depend on how the body absorbs and breaks down alcohol. Older adults break down alcohol more slowly than younger people and alcohol stays in their bodies longer. 

A person's height and weight also impact how alcohol is absorbed. The smaller and lighter you are, the more quickly alcohol is absorbed. People from some ethnic groups also have a harder time breaking down alcohol. Even small amounts can have a big effect on their bodies.

How Your Body Processes Alcohol

When you drink, alcohol passes from the stomach and small intestine into the blood, then is carried to your other organs. Alcohol is dissolved in water, so it enters your organs in proportion to the amount of water they hold. The more water available in the organs to soak up alcohol, the less alcohol remains in your bloodstream.

Your liver does most of the work of breaking down alcohol, but it can only do so much, regardless of the amount you drink. A very small percentage of alcohol escapes this process and is eliminated unchanged in your breath, sweat and urine. Until all the alcohol in the body has been broken down, it stays in the brain and other tissues of the body.

How Alcohol Affects Men vs. Women

In general, women and older men have less water in their organs than younger men. Therefore, less alcohol enters their organs, and more alcohol stays in their bloodstream. Younger women make less of the stomach enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This means more alcohol is available to be soaked up into the blood. As a result, a young woman will have a higher blood alcohol level than a man of the same age who drinks the same amount of alcohol.

Heredity may play a role in how alcohol and your body act together. Moderate drinkers who have genes that cause a slower breakdown of alcohol are at much lower risk for heart and blood vessel disease than moderate drinkers who have genes that cause rapid breakdown of alcohol.

Alcohol is broken down more slowly when it's soaked up. The process of soaking up alcohol is slowed when you drink alcohol during or right after a meal. The slower soaking up process lets the liver break down alcohol at a rate that keeps more of it from reaching other organs.

Because the liver breaks down alcohol, people with liver disease are more sensitive to drinking. Certain medicines may cause harmful reactions if you drink while taking them. Alcohol affects the breakdown of some medicines by increasing the activity of some and decreasing the activity of others. Most notably, heavy alcohol consumption when taking acetaminophen can lead to liver damage. 

For people with a history of alcohol use disorder, the danger of drinking is far greater than the rumored benefits to your heart.

This article is provided by the StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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