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Alcohol and Heart Disease

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Can a few drinks really be good for your heart? Yes, but only a few, and not for everyone.

Moderate drinking -- no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men -- appears to protect some people against heart disease.

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One drink is 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Alcohol may help your heart in these ways:

  • It raises HDL or "good" cholesterol.
  • It lowers blood pressure.
  • It stops blood from clotting. This can be good or bad. It may hold off heart attacks, but it could make you bleed more easily.
  • It helps prevent damage caused by high LDL or "bad" cholesterol.

But before you break out that cocktail shaker, know this: Some doctors aren’t sure if those healthy effects come from the alcohol or from other good lifestyle choices that light drinkers make. So if you don’t drink already, don’t start. Diet and exercise also provide many of the benefits listed above.

Heavy drinking can make you more likely to get serious health problems like liver disease, cancer, and peptic ulcers, among others. Regular or high alcohol use can hurt your heart and lead to diseases of the heart muscle, called cardiomyopathy. Binge drinking can cause irregular heart rhythms called arrhythmias. This is why you can’t save up all your “moderate” doses during the week and then tie one on during the weekend.

Who Shouldn’t Drink?

Alcohol can be harmful for some people. Talk to your doctor if you have one of these conditions and aren’t sure whether you should drink or not:

  • Heart failure
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • A history of stroke
  • High triglycerides

Obese people, pregnant women, and anyone with a history of alcoholism should not drink. Certain medications don’t mix well with alcohol. These usually come with a warning sticker from your pharmacy that tells you not to drink while you take them.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC on September 10, 2014
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