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If you watch the news or spend any time online, then you probably have heard the hype about the benefits of drinking a glass or two of red wine a night. Such coverage often fails to mention the negative consequences of drinking and the effects of alcohol on the heart, however. These often outweigh the benefits, which themselves can be variable due to differences in gender, genetic factors, health histories, and lifestyle choices.
The negative long-term effects of alcohol on the heart have been dubbed a top killer in America by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surpassing death rates from accidents more than fivefold. The long-term effects of alcohol on the heart can be especially damaging. These include not only the direct health impact of the substance itself, alcohol but also the cardiovascular consequences of other behavioral and lifestyle choices that so often go along with problem drinking.
Alcohol and Nutrition
Problem drinking is rarely accompanied by healthy nutrition. As a person’s drinking habit escalates, more and more of the calories they consume will be from alcohol rather than for energy and nutrition, so that they will not get the variety of nutrients and vitamins required for a healthy body and mind. Going for extended periods without food, late night eating, binge eating, and unhealthy food choices are all common unhealthy eating habits that accompany heavy drinking. Obesity can, in turn, lead to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, the isolation from family and friends that often accompanies alcoholism can lead to prolonged periods of physical inactivity, doubling the chances for heart disease.
Even in the best-case scenario — when someone with a drinking problem is still capable of maintaining a healthy and well-balanced diet — alcohol still impairs and threatens various body systems, including the heart.
The following is a list of alcohol-related damages to the body:
- Compromised liver function and liver disease
- Interruption of healthy bowel movement and digestion
- Repeated vomiting which can injure the esophagus
- Decreased ability for the intestines to absorb nutrients and carry them to the bloodstream
- Less enzyme production (which aids in digestion)
- Nutritional deficiency
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Decreased brain function and memory loss
Alcohol and Smoking
Heavy drinkers are three times more likely to be smokers than moderate or non-drinkers. Regular smokers are even more likely to become dependent on drinking: their risks of alcohol abuse and addiction are four times those of non-smokers. The correlation between smoking and drinking only increases the risk and probability of damage to the body, and especially to the heart. Smoking is an especially damaging combination with alcohol because both substances attack similar parts of the body. Just like drinking, smoking can block blood flow and oxygen delivery to organs like the brain, heart, and lungs, which need blood and oxygen in order to function.
The following is a list of long-term effects of smoking that are even more likely when paired with drinking:
- Enlarged Heart
- Interference with the heart’s ability to pump blood
- Abnormal heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Blood Clots
- Liver Disease
Alcohol and Heart Health
Heavy drinking over long periods can create permanent effects on the mind and body. Long-term drinking can result in such serious effects on the heart in particular that there has even been a heart condition named accordingly, alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is what happens when the heart can no longer contract properly, resulting in an inability to pump blood to the body’s organs and tissues. When the body’s organs and tissues do not receive proper blood flow, the body can go into a form of overdrive, working overload to over-compensate and creating higher blood pressure and a faster heart rate.
Here are some of the heart complications caused by excessive drinking:
- Alcoholic cardiomyopathy
- Irregular heartbeat
- Atrial fibrillation causing blood clots in the heart that can lead to stroke
- Ventricular tachycardia causing damage to the heart muscle and causing the heart to contract too much and not get enough blood to the rest of the body and the brain
- Strokes when the brain doesn’t get enough blood
- Hypertension or high blood pressure from an increase in stress hormones released and resulting in constricted blood vessels
- Organ damage
- Heart failures, such as congestion of blood in the lungs and even death
There are several risk factors for heart disease that cannot be controlled, such as gender, family history, age, and ethnicity; but the majority of heart-related fatalities are due to modifiable factors that can be treated, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Among the most preventable and treatable risk factors for heart disease are those that have to do with lifestyle choices and creating new and healthier habits. By adjusting eating, smoking and drinking habits, a person can improve their heart health and in some cases even reverse the long-term effects of alcohol on the heart.