Can drinking affect your heart health? Read on to understand the cause and effect relationship between alcohol and cholesterol.
In this article:
- What Is Cholesterol?
- How Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?
- When Is Alcohol Consumption Beneficial to Cardiovascular Health?
- When Does Alcohol Raise Cholesterol?
- Who Should Avoid Alcohol?
- How Else Can You Control Cholesterol Levels?
Everything You Need to Know About Alcohol and Cholesterol
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is waxy lipid found in every cell. The body naturally creates it, but you can also get it from your diet.
Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol isn’t bad. In fact, our body needs cholesterol to make Vitamin D and certain hormones.
So, your body actually needs a healthy amount of cholesterol to function. It only becomes problematic when your body has too much of a certain type of cholesterol.
There are two types of cholesterol:
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – This is a type of “good” cholesterol. It delivers excess cholesterol to the liver for excretion.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – This is a type of “bad” cholesterol. It can build-up in blood vessels which could lead to plaques and blockages.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following cholesterol levels for adults:
- LDL cholesterol levels – less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol levels for men – 40 mg/dL or higher
- HDL cholesterol levels for women – 50 mg/dL or higher
- Total cholesterol levels – 125-200 mg/dL
People with a total cholesterol level of 240 mg/dL or higher have high cholesterol. Apart from HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides also contribute to total cholesterol levels.
What are triglycerides? Triglycerides are made from unused calories. This is a type of fat you can find in your blood.
Doctors use cholesterol levels as a barometer of cardiovascular health. The NIH also reports that chronic and untreated high cholesterol can lead to serious medical complications such as a heart attack or stroke.
How Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?
The effect of alcohol on cardiovascular health isn’t straightforward. Alcohol consumption can impact cardiovascular health in both positive and negative ways.
Alcoholic beverages in their purest form, such as liquor, wine, and beer, don’t actually contain any cholesterol. But alcohol still has an impact on cholesterol which, in turn, influences cardiovascular health.
Ultimately, alcohol’s impact on cholesterol and cardiovascular health depends on the following factors:
- Type of alcohol consumed
- Quantity of alcohol consumed
- Frequency of alcohol consumption
These factors help determine when alcohol consumption is beneficial and when it’s harmful.
When Is Alcohol Consumption Beneficial to Cardiovascular Health?
Regular moderate alcohol consumption seems to offer the most cardiovascular benefits. For men, this allows for up to two drinks per day.
On the other hand, it only allows women to have one drink each day. Regular moderate alcohol consumption has been found to lower the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases by increasing HDL cholesterol levels.
By increasing HDL cholesterol levels, the body is more efficient in delivering excess cholesterol to the liver which clears it from your system. This reduces the risk of plaque build-up in blood vessels which may lead to serious cardiovascular conditions.
Among the different types of alcohol, wine seems to offer the most cardiovascular benefits. Wine is a good source of resveratrol.
Resveratrol is a polyphenol and an antioxidant. It offers the following cardiovascular benefits:
- Lowers LDL cholesterol level
- Decreases triglyceride levels
- Reduces the risk of inflammation
- Prevents blood clotting
So, wine, in moderation, does offer some promising health benefits. In fact, one study shows moderate alcohol drinkers had a significantly lower risk for a heart attack compared to people who didn’t drink.
Aside from wine, beer also contains plant sterols which can reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, beer doesn’t contain enough plant sterol to make a meaningful impact on cholesterol levels.
RELATED: Understanding LDL Cholesterol
When Does Alcohol Raise Cholesterol?
Regular heavy or excessive alcohol consumption is harmful to cardiovascular health. For women, heavy alcohol consumption amounts to 4 or more drinks in a single occasion or 8 or more drinks each week.
For men, it amounts to 5 or more drinks in a single occasion or 15 or more drinks each week. Unlike moderate alcohol consumption, heavy drinking can lead to an increase in triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and body weight.
These factors can contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease. On top of that, studies show heavy drinking can alter the anatomy of the heart which increases the risk of heart failure.
When it comes to the type of alcoholic beverages, it’s best to stay away from flavored alcoholic drinks or liquor mixers. These drinks often contain a lot of sugar which can increase triglyceride levels.
Who Should Avoid Alcohol?
Individuals with the following medical conditions shouldn’t drink alcohol:
- Pregnant women
- Weak heart or heart failure
- Liver diseases
- Pancreatic diseases
Certain medications may also interact poorly with alcohol. So consult your doctor before you drink if you’re on any maintenance medication.
Aside from that, alcoholism is a highly heritable disease. Individuals who have a family history of alcohol use disorder should be extra careful with their alcohol consumption as well.
How Else Can You Control Cholesterol Levels?
Even if moderate alcohol drinking has cardiovascular benefits, it’s not a recommended method of preventing cardiovascular diseases. Here are other things you can try to help improve your cardiovascular health:
- Be mindful of your diet – Eat more fruits and vegetables, cut back on salty and fatty food, and avoid sugary beverages and snacks.
- Exercise regularly – 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day is ideal.
- Take the right supplements – Supplements are a great way to get important nutrients you may not be getting from your diet. They are also a great way to get some of the cardiovascular benefits of alcohol without the risk.
- Quit smoking – Firsthand and secondhand smoke is bad for your heart.
- Prioritize mental health – Find ways to manage stress and find time for the things you love.
Aside from this, you may also want to visit your doctor to check if you have any other medical issues which may contribute to poor cardiovascular health. For instance, according to the NIH, diabetes can put you at greater risk for heart disease.
Before you bring out the wine glasses, it’s important to understand the link between cholesterol and alcohol. Moderate alcohol drinking does offer some benefits, but excessive drinking can have a detrimental effect on your cardiovascular health.
On top of that, there are risks associated with alcohol consumption in general. So, you may want to consider alternative and safer methods of lowering cholesterol and promoting cardiovascular health.
How do you promote your cardiovascular health? Let us know in the comments section!