Author: Justin Mckibben
Almost a year ago, I walked into a local urgent care clinic with a knot in my chest. I had been experiencing palpitations and chest tightness on-and-off for a month or more, and this particular morning my heart rate felt through the roof, just sitting at my desk. No more coffee than usual, but some new vitamins, and my anxiety didn’t help.
Once in front of a doctor, they opted to perform an EKG. In doing so, they noticed an irregularity and recommended I see my primary care as soon as possible.
A few weeks later, after EKGs, X-rays and an echocardiogram, it was determined I have aortic insufficiency… at 28 years old.
Also known as aortic regurgitation, what this means is that the aortic valve of my heart leaks, causing blood to flow in the reverse direction during ventricular diastole, from the aorta into the left ventricle. In short, it means that the cardiac muscle has to work harder. At 28 years old, I got my own cardiologist and check in every 6 months to make sure I won’t need medication or surgery.
When I first started with testing, my doctor asked about my history with drugs and alcohol. As a recovering alcoholic with years of mixing a lot of whiskey with a lot of prescription drugs that didn’t belong to me, it was the first time I realized what years of drinking and drug use does to the body. Which lead me to wonder just how much cardiovascular damage drinking can do to the human body.
And that is the story of how alcohol broke my heart.
Some people say a few drinks in moderation can actually be beneficial to you. But what about the very real relationship between alcohol and heart disease?
Alcohol and Heart Disease: What is “Good” Drinking?
For a long time, there has been a general idea that alcoholic drinks can be good for your heart. There is some truth to this but only understand certain circumstances. We can’t all drink a case of beer every day and expect our bodies to reward us. In fact, the only way to drink to your health is in moderation, and that doesn’t even apply to everyone.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), moderate drinking is:
- One drink a day for women
- One to two drinks a day for men
The definition of “one drink” by this standard is:
- 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler
- 4 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces of 80-proof liquor
- 1 ounce of 100-proof liquor
Some suggest these kinds of drinks can help prevent heart problems. However, a healthy diet and regular exercise provide the same benefits in a more sustainable way. Not only that, drinking more than in moderation can increase several serious risks, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Breast cancer
Any impacts of alcohol have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Each individual’s body may react differently depending on their health in general. Certain pre-existing conditions can make consuming alcohol far more dangerous and outweigh any possible benefits. Not to mention, the AHA states that doctors aren’t actually sure if the supposed health effects of “good” drinking come from the alcohol or from other good lifestyle choices.
So before you get too caught up in the idea of how “good” drinking helps heart health, consider the many risks to the cardiovascular system with alcohol and heart disease.
Alcohol and Heart Disease: Cardiovascular Damage
Part of the cardiovascular system includes the heart and blood vessels. The heart pumps the blood around the body, via blood vessels through arteries, capillaries, and veins. Our blood is the current that delivers nutrients all over the body, and that same life-line also carries alcohol and other materials. So of course, it would only make sense that the presence of alcohol impacts the cardiovascular system.
While drinking, alcohol can cause temporary increases in blood pressure and heart rate. Therefore, excessive drinking can lead to on-going side effects, especially when someone overconsumes for an extended time. So what kind of cardiovascular damage connects alcohol and heart disease?
High blood pressure is when the blood is pumping with exaggerated force through the arteries. Regularly consuming alcohol above the national guidelines for moderation can cause hypertension or high blood pressure.
High blood pressure can lead to hardening and thickening of the arteries and is a serious risk factor for stroke or heart attack.
Increase in Heart Rate
Alcohol affects the way the heart beats and the time between heartbeats. Studies have indicated that regular heavy drinking can cause episodes of tachycardia.
Tachycardia is an increase in heart rate due to problems in the electrical signals that actually produce the heartbeat.
Regular episodes of tachycardia can cause other serious complications, including blood clots that lead to a stroke or heart attack.
The human heart is the critical muscle that sends oxygen and nutrients to the rest of the body. It is a complex organ, but it’s ability to contract is due to the muscle layer within the heart wall. Damage to the heart muscle is called cardiomyopathy, and heavy alcohol consumption causes cardiomyopathy.
Dilated cardiomyopathy causes weakened heart muscle. This condition enlarges the four chambers of the heart, which results in weaker contractions. Weak contractions make it harder for blood to circulate the body.
These issues can eventually lead to congestive heart failure when the heart is not able to pump enough blood to fulfill the needs of the body.
Before we talked about tachycardia- which is when the heartbeat is too fast. That is one form of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. Another form of arrhythmias is bradycardia- when the heartbeat is too slow. Either one can lead to cardiac arrest and stroke.
Alcohol has been found to be a primary cause of acute cardiac rhythm disturbances.
One type of arrhythmia caused by alcohol is atrial fibrillation. This is when the upper chambers of the heart quiver instead of beating normally. It can cause blood that has not left the heart’s atrium to pool and clot. If a blood clot then breaks off and is with the bloodstream, it can lodge into an artery within the brain and cause ischemic stroke.
Alcohol and Heart Disease: Stroke and Heart Attack
Beyond the many ways alcohol can cause long-term damage to the heart, there are two heart disease that can be the direct result of alcohol use.
Alcohol consumption can lead to two types of strokes.
This kind of stroke is the result of a blockage of an artery supplying blood to the brain tissue. It can result from a clot that has formed in the artery or from a foreign body breaking off and lodging in the artery.3Alcohol increases the risk of ischemic stroke because it can:
- Cause a clot due to irregular heartbeat and weakened the heart muscle
- Create high blood pressure which can result in a foreign body such as plaque to break off and enter the bloodstream.
- Raise the levels of fat in the blood. If a clot forms in a clogged artery, this can cause a stroke.
This results from tearing and bleeding of an artery that supplies blood to brain tissue. Alcohol increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke by causing high blood pressure. Hypertension can create weak points on artery walls, including those in the brain, increasing the chance of them bleeding due to the force of high pressure.
Both kinds of strokes can result in:
- Disruption of blood flow to brain tissue
- Loss of motor functions
- Loss of sensory functions
Having a stroke can also damage other systems in the body, including:
- Skeletal system
- Muscular system
- Respiratory system
- Digestive system
- Urinary system
The human heart needs oxygen to keep pumping. A heart attack is actually what happens when an artery that supplies the heart with oxygen is reduced or cut off completely.
Blood flow to the heart can be blocked due to the gradual buildup of plaque, fat, and cholesterol that narrows the coronary arteries. Alcohol consumption can increase fat levels in the blood. High levels of bad cholesterol can clog arteries and if a piece of plaque breaks off, clot forms and a heart attack can result.
Because the heart is such a complex organ, alcohol and heart disease is a complex issue. However, there is a pretty simple conclusion we can come to- excessive alcohol use does raise the risks of heart disease.
Watch for symptoms of heart problems, including:
- Chest discomfort: pain/tightness/pressure
- Pain that spreads to the arm
- Throat or jaw pain
- Getting easily exhausted
- A long-lasting cough
- Swelling in legs, feet, and ankles
- Irregular heartbeat
Alcohol and Heart Disease: Fighting the Statistics
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about 610,000 people die in the United States every year from heart disease. However, a recent report on heart disease by the American Heart Association shows that in 2017, cardiovascular disease, listed as an underlying cause of death, accounts for nearly 801,000 deaths in the United States.
That is 1 in every 3 deaths.
The AHA report states that about 2,200 Americans die every day from cardiovascular disease.
That is an average of 1 death every 40 seconds.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Cardiovascular diseases actually claim more lives each year than all forms of cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease COMBINED! Every day, around 92.1 million Americans are living with some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of a stroke.
Excessive alcohol use is one of many factors that put people at an elevated risk of heart disease. Perhaps a big part of fighting back against the growing statistics of heart disease-related deaths is to fight back against a culture of chronic and excessive alcohol consumption. For those struggling with alcoholism, there is of course even more risk of severe damage to the body. Binge-drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse may be doing more long-term harm than you realize to that piece of muscle that keeps you going.
Alcohol and Heart Disease: Show Your Heart Some Love
Learning from my own experience, I can say the relationship between alcohol and heart disease should be taken very seriously. It is easy to shrug it off when you don’t feel the effects right away, but there is a chance you will start feeling the devastating of excessive drinking sooner than you expect. I always knew that my grandfather, a heavy drinker, and smoker all his life, died years before turning 60 due to heart attacks and a stroke. But I never thought that I would have to get my heart looked at every six months years before I turn 30.
There are subtle signs to watch out for that could indicate you have a heart problem, including:
- Extremely fatigue
- Swelling feet
- Extreme pain when walking
- Getting dizzy or lightheaded
- Shortness of breath, even though you’re fit
- Hearing your heart beat when you’re trying to sleep
- Experiencing anxiety, sweating, and nausea all at once
While some of these are not alone a guarantee that you have a heart problem, they can be warning signs to consider.
When it comes to the issue of excessive drinking and alcoholism, one should always note that getting off alcohol is not always easy. Experts do not recommend people with alcohol dependence abruptly stop cold turkey, because alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening. In order to safely and effectively discontinue alcohol abuse, a medical detox program is crucial. The health complications associated with an alcohol addiction should not be underestimated. Show your heart some love by seeking a recovery program that focuses on overall health and wellness for each individual.
Part of your recovery is listening to your heart and your body, and taking steps to heal holistically.