How does alcohol affect the heart?
Drinking a lot of alcohol over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart or interfere with the way it works. This can cause different problems, including:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Increased risk of strokes
- Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
- Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
High blood pressure (hypertension)
High blood pressure is the most common alcohol related health problem, but many people don’t realise they have it.
Drinking a lot of alcohol can release hormones or affect the muscles in your blood vessels, causing them to become narrower (constrict). When your blood vessels are narrower, the heart has to work harder to push blood around your body. This makes your blood pressure go up. High blood pressure is dangerous if left untreated. It can significantly increase your risk of stroke, heart disease, vascular dementia (dementia caused by not enough blood being able to get to the brain) and chronic kidney disease.
A stroke happens when blood cannot reach the brain. Both binge drinking (drinking 6 or more standard drinks in one sitting) and long-term heavy drinking can lead to strokes. Alcohol also causes other problems that can lead to strokes, or makes them worse. For example, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and weakened heart muscle.
Stretching and drooping of heart muscle – Cardiomyopathy
Long-term heavy drinking can cause the heart muscles to weaken. This is called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. If your heart muscle is droopy and stretched it can’t pump blood around your body very well. If the blood flow to other parts of your body is not enough, it can damage to organs and tissues. It can also cause symptoms like breathing difficulties, extreme tiredness, swollen legs and feet, irregular heartbeat and heart failure.
Irregular heart beat – Arrhythmias
Both binge drinking and long-term high-risk drinking can affect how quickly a heart beats. Alcohol can make the heart beat too rapidly, or irregularly. These heart rate abnormalities are called arrhythmias.
How much alcohol increases my risk of high blood pressure?
The more alcohol you drink the higher the risk of developing hypertension. If you drink regularly you are at risk, especially if you’re over the age of 35. Even one drink a day can increase your risk.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
Cut down or stop drinking:
Hypertension is one of the most preventable alcohol related problems - Drinking less lowers your blood pressure. What’s more, you will probably also lose weight by reducing the amount you drink, which is also good for heart health.
Check your blood pressure:
Hypertension causes most problems when it’s left untreated, so get your blood pressure checked regularly so that you can get treatment if you need it. Your blood pressure can be checked by your GP or Pharmacist.