Is drinking a little alcohol a day really doing your heart a favor?

Cheerful man holding a glass of alcohol

Winding down with a glass of wine or a beer every day isn’t healthy for our hearts, as once thought.

A new study shows that drinking not only offers no benefit to your heart, but it poses a risk to it. Even one drink a day puts you at a small risk for heart disease, and that risk increases substantially as the number of drinks you have goes up.

In my experience as a cardiologist, I’ve always considered it a myth that having a modest amount of alcohol every day helped your heart. Past studies showed that people who had one drink a day had healthy hearts, but these studies were problematic — there are other possible reasons why they had healthy hearts besides the modest amount of alcohol they drank. The people who had just one drink a day likely were disciplined in other aspects of their health, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet. It’s very difficult for anyone doing studies to account for those factors.

How much alcohol per day is still healthy?

No alcohol whatsoever is best for your heart and other organs, but if you don’t want to part ways with alcohol entirely, drink moderately.

What’s “moderate”? Do what the American Heart Association recommends: Men should drink no more than one to two drinks a day, and women, no more than one. If you’re over 65, drink even less — four drinks a week, at most.

With the pandemic and people working from home, alcohol became the go-to tactic for coping and for entertainment for some people. In my practice, I’ve been seeing the effects of people drinking a lot more.

How does alcohol affect the heart?

Alcohol weakens your heart muscle. Excessive drinking can make it difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body, possibly leading to a stroke or heart attack. A condition called “alcohol cardiomyopathy” can develop, causing shortness of breath; swelling in your legs, feet and ankles; and weakness, along with other symptoms. If you have alcohol cardiomyopathy but eliminate alcohol entirely, you’ll have a very good chancing of recovering from the condition within six months to a year. The effects of alcohol cardiomyopathy don’t get erased, but they can be far less severe than if you never let up on your drinking.

Drinking can also hinder your sleep. Though you may fall asleep faster after you drink, the alcohol can cause you to wake up more often and reduce the amount of deep sleep you get, so you wake up feeling groggy and not fully rested.

The risk of drinking too much — even if only on weekends

Say you don’t drink all week, but when Friday night arrives, you begin overindulging. Over time, you could experience “holiday heart syndrome,” in which your heart beats abnormally fast to 140 or 150 beats a minute or skips beats, and you find yourself short of breath. That can lead to heart failure or stroke. If you’re being disciplined about not drinking or drinking minimally during the week and then overcompensating on the weekend, it’s not a wise approach.

And as you age, it’s best to drink less, because your body can’t metabolize the alcohol like it could when you were 21.

As tough as it might be to pick water over wine, beer or another drink, it’s best on your heart and other organs. About the only health benefit to drinking is doing so with others, as you’ll get the benefit of socializing — but you can get that from a tennis match or game of cards, too.

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