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Alcohol and Heart Disease

Most people don't think of alcohol as a drug...but it is. Alcohol abuse has destroyed more lives, broken apart more families, caused more diseases and contributed to more auto fatalities than any other drug. It is the major contributing factor in the growing epidemic of domestic violence.

More than half of all adults drink, but, not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. Alcholism is a complex psychosocial disease. Those who drink risk becoming an alcoholic. It impairs your judgement and affects the way you think, feel and communicate.

The cause of alcoholism is unknown, but, like heart disease, there are both controllable and uncontrollable risk factors. Having an alcoholic parent is an uncontrollable risk. You are at risk if you are angry, lonely or sad or have few or no friends. Those who are poor or under great stress are also at risk for alcoholism.

Alcohol addiction has 4 characteristics:

  1. Alcoholism carries an overwhelming urge to repeat the experience of getting high on alcohol. At times, this urge will go beyond the strength of a person's will to resist, no matter how much risk or harm may be involved.
  2. Satisfying the urge to drink becomes the top priority in the alcoholic's life. This urge can become stronger than sexual needs, stronger than the need to satisfy hunger, stonger even than the need for survival.
  3. The urge to get high with alcohol becomes linked to all other aspects of life. Tension, depression, anger and excitement can all trigger the desire to take a drink.
  4. No matter how long an alcoholic has been sober, he or she will always be at risk for alcohol abuse. As time passes with sobriety, the urge to drink weakens and occurs less often, but it can return with ferocious and overpowering strength at any time.
Do you wonder if drinking may be a problem for you? Take this quiz to find out.
  1. Do you calm yourself down with a drink when under pressure at work?

  2. Do you ever have hangovers?

  3. Do family quarrels usually occur after you have had a drink or two?

  4. Does your family think you drink too much?

  5. Have you ever injured yourself or other persons after drinking?

  6. Are you often on, and off, the wagon?

  7. Have you ever driven while intoxicated?

  8. Do you avoid situations where it would be difficult for you lto get a drink if you wanted one?

  9. When giving yourself a second or third drink, do you reassure yourself that you deserve it?

  10. If you know that you have to drive home in an hour, do you ever have a second drink anyway?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, you need to look carefully at how alcohol is affecting your life and your relationships with others. Discuss your concerns with your primary care doctor.

How much alcohol is “safe” to drink on a daily basis?

For some, no amount of alcohol is safe to take in. It is highly addictive and, as tolerance level increases, control decreases.

Alcohol's Affect on the Heart

Numerous studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption helps protect against heart disease by raising HDL (good) cholesterol and reducing plaque accumulations in your arteries. Alcohol also has a mild anti-coagulating effect, keeping platelets from clumping together to form clots. Both actions can reduce risk of heart attack but exactly how alcohol influences either one still remains unclear.

On the other hand, drinking more than three drinks a day has a direct toxic effect on the heart. Heavy drinking, particularly over time, can damage the heart and lead to high blood pressure, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, (enlarged and weakened heart), congestive heart failure, and stroke. Heavy drinking puts more fat into the circulation in your body, raising your triglygeride level. That's why doctors will tell you “If you don't drink, don't start”. There are other, healthier ways to reduce your risk of heart disease like eating right, getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

What's “Moderate Drinking” for one may be legally drunk for another. By nature's design, a woman's body metabolizes alcohol differently so that 1 alcoholic beverage in a woman is equal to 2 in a man. Alcohol remains in a woman's body longer than in a man's. Also, the older you are, the less efficient the body can metabolize alcohol. Many states have revised their drunk-driving laws and 0.08 percent is considered to be intoxicated. Women, especially women of small stature, must be alert to these laws and metabolic differences when drinking, and limit their alcohol intake accordingly.

picture of a normal healthy heart


picture of a heart damaged by alcohol

Normal Heart    Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy
- weakened by chronic excessive alcohol intake.
(photos courtesy of Health Edco. Used by permission)

Other Medical Consequences of Alcoholism

Studies show that alcoholics have a worse outcome after undergoing surgical procedures. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Poorer outcomes may be attributed to a poorer general state of health with malnutrition and the depressant effects of alcohol. Binge drinking (consuming large amounts of alcohol infrequently, such as on weekends) places one at risk for atrial fibrillation which may also be a factor in surviving surgery. Still another factor is that heavy drinking affects the body's ability to stop bleeding. A liver damaged by alcohol has trouble making clotting proteins.

Alcohol interacts with many drugs - both prescription and non-prescription. Mixing alcohol with your medicine can lead to serious untoward effects.

Alcoholism increases risk of cancers, including breast cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the liver.

Long-term heavy use of alcohol destroys the cerebellum of the brain, causing irreversible brain damage and resulting in slowed thinking, an unsteady walk and slurred speech.

Alcoholism contributes to many diseases, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, malnutrition, pancreatitis, stomach ulcer, fetal alcohol syndrome and heart disease, just to name a few.

The Twelve Steps

  1. We admitted that we were powerless over alchohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to imporve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Learning Healthier Behaviors

Cutting back on drinking or abstaining altogether isn't easy. If you have a physical dependence on alcohol, you most likely need medical assistance to help you to break the habit. If you feel you just drink too much as a pattern of behavior you've slipped into, then, here are some tips to replace drinking behaviors with more healthful ones:

  1. When you eat out, order up a glass of water and some food. Drink the water right away so that you are not drinking alcohol just to quench a thirst. Having food to eat will slow the absorption rate of the alcohol and keep your hands busy.
  2. Discover new places. Sports bars usually have other activities you can busy yourself with while socializing. You can throw darts, play a game of pool or challenge a friend to an air hockey match. There's lots you can do besides just sitting at a bar and drinking.
  3. Order up a non-alcoholic drink. If you just ask for a glass of white grape juice in a wine glass, or you get a non-alcoholic beer in a beer mug, no one is the wiser but you.
  4. Find supportive friends. What do you have in common with your current friends besides drinking? What would you do or talk about if you weren't drinking? If you don't know, then it's time to move on.
  5. Get involved. Women must give up their care-giving role as their children mature and leave home. This time period is often referred to as the “empty nest”. Rather than allowing an empty feeling to creep in, why not give of your time and energy to a worthy cause?
  6. Relax at home with a sparkling gingerale or tonic water with cranberry juice. It's festive, fun and refreshing.

If you or someone you care about has a drinking problem, you can obtain information from the Yellow Pages by looking under “Social Service Organizations”, for Alcoholic Annonymous. Alanon and Alateen are support groups for those living with an alcoholic. Read books and talk to your family physician or minister. Alcoholism is treatable but only if the person who is drinking is willing to admit she has a problem and is willing to accept help. Alcoholism is a disease that is characterized by denial, so, while you may not be able to change the behavior of someone you love, you still need to get help for yourself because alcoholism becomes a family illness.

Note: Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. A drink, according to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is roughly 1/2 ounce of absolute alcohol, a 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce bottle of beer or 1/2 ounce distilled spirits (80 proof). Each contains about the same amount of alcohol.

Spence, W.R., The Medical Consequences of Alcoholism, Health Edco®, '96,
DeWitt,DE, Romaine, DS, Guide to a Happy, Healthy Heart, Alpha Books, '98
Grateful acknowledement to Health Edco Corporation for the heart graphic. Used with permission.

Alcohol and Heart Disease |  Gender Differences |  Mitral Valve Prolapse |  Women’s Heart Risk Quiz Sleep Disturbances: Heart at Risk |  What is Heart Disease? |  Cardiac Arrhythmia Management in Women |  Heart Disease Facts |  Panic Attack or Heart Attack |  Three Women from New Jersey  |  Noreen  | 

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1999-2000; updates: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 Women's Heart Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited. The information contained in this Women's Heart Foundation (WHF) Web site is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, and WHF recommends consultation with your doctor or health care professional.