February is Heart Health month – show your heart some love by drinking less

Don’t forget to show some love to the important people in your life this month—whether a partner or parent, a coworker or friend, everyone benefits from warm and positive feelings. But while you’re at it, why not show your own heart some love too? February is not only associated with hearts due to Valentine’s Day but also because it’s Heart Health Month, designed to raise awareness about cardiovascular health and heart disease.

A simple—but definitely not easy—way to do this is to reduce alcohol consumption.

While moderate alcohol consumption was often thought to improve health, emerging science paints an entirely different picture. It turns out that alcohol, along with all substances that change how we think or feel, can cause significant harm.

“It turns out that alcohol, along with all substances that change how we think or feel, can cause significant harm.”

According to the CDC, more than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol consumption in the US each year. Most deaths are due to the negative effects of consuming too much alcohol over a long period of time, like cancer and heart disease. According to the CDC, alcohol on average, reduces the lifespan of those who die from it each year by 26 years.

So how exactly can alcohol cause heart problems, and what can we do to improve our wellbeing? We’ll explore those questions and more below.

How does alcohol affect the heart?

Alcohol can impact the heart in many ways including:

  • Causing a high heart rate: A healthy heart should pump blood between 60 and 100 beats per minute, but alcohol can temporarily increase heart rate. If the heart speeds past 100 beats per minute too often or for too long, it can cause life-threatening issues like heart failure, heart attacks, or strokes.
  • Causing high blood pressure: Alcohol can temporarily raise blood pressure, particularly when a person binge drinks. Chronic high blood pressure is linked to cardiovascular disease.
  • Causing an irregular heartbeat: Overdrinking—and overeating—can lead to an irregular heartbeat. Known as Holiday Heart Syndrome, it can often occur around the holidays when many people eat and drink more than typical. An irregular heartbeat can increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.

Is any amount of alcohol safe?

The traditional thinking that moderate amounts of alcohol—red wine in particular—is good for your heart might not be true.

“It’s not a good idea to start drinking alcohol in an effort to lower your risk of heart disease,” cardiologist Dr. Leslie Cho tells the Cleveland Clinic. “It’s better not to drink any alcohol at all.”

Some studies have shown alcohol can raise levels of good cholesterol or that red wine might improve heart health with antioxidants.

But the link between alcohol consumption of any kind and better health remains tenuous at best. Fruits and vegetables are indisputably healthier sources of antioxidants, while exercise can boost good cholesterol levels.

Based on the latest scientific understanding of the effect of alcohol on health, the newly released “Guidance on Alcohol and Health” (formerly the Canadian Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines”) suggest people limit alcohol consumption to two drinks per week to reduce health risks associated with alcohol. According to the new guidelines:

  • 2 drinks per week—you are likely to avoid alcohol related consequences.
  • 3-6 drinks per week—you increase your risk of developing several types of cancers.
  • 7 drinks per week—your risk of heart disease or stroke increases significantly.

As clinical director of ALAViDA Dr. Terri-Lynn MacKay says, “Previous research told us that alcohol in moderation was good for us. Turns out that research was flawed.”

She explains that previous studies included former drinkers in the non-drinkers category, skewing results. Modern research has corrected issues like this one to provide a new, more accurate picture of the dangers of alcohol consumption.

“The myth that red wine is good for heart health has been debunked by science. In fact, evidence shows that alcohol is worse for our bodies than we previously thought. It’s time to reevaluate our relationship with this substance and prioritize our long-term health.”

Why is binge drinking particularly dangerous?

Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in two hours for women and five or more for men. It doesn’t imply addiction, and time between binge drinking bouts can create the illusion that a person doesn’t consume a lot of alcohol. But that doesn’t mean binge drinking is safe.

While binge drinking does not necessarily mean someone has alcohol use disorder, both can have similar long-term effects on the body. Binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning or physical accidents from impaired judgement and reaction time. Long-term binge drinking can cause internal damage including liver problems, stomach issues, poor heart health, depression, and more.

How else can you show your heart some love?

Below are five easy steps from Harvard Health that any busy person can take to show their heart some love this year.

  1. Take a 10-minute walk. Walking can improve cholesterol and blood pressure. Getting outside for just 10 minutes per day can boost mood and reduce stress, especially for those who struggle to exercise.
  2. Stop drinking calories. Eliminating sugar sodas and juices can lead to several pounds of weight loss over the year.
  3. Breathe deeply. Just a few minutes each day of deep breathing can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Deep breathing has also been linked to better digestion, among other health benefits.
  4. Wash your hands. Regular hand washing can prevent the flu and other infections, which can put added strain on the heart.
  5. Practice gratitude. Gratitude can promote positive emotions that are linked to better health and longer life. Chronic anger and worry have been shown to raise blood pressure and promote heart disease.

Extend your love to your heart this year by drinking less!

Reducing alcohol intake is not only important for the health of your heart, but it is a form of self-love. By taking care of your heart, you are showing love and respect for the thing that keeps you alive and well. Take care of your heart, and your heart will take care of you.

If you are struggling with behavior change around your substance use, there are many great online resources to support you on the path of cutting back or quitting altogether.

At ALAViDA, we provide a wide range of support options to help you change your relationship with alcohol and other substances. You can access coaching and support options through the TRAiL, plus a wide range of resources to help you reach your goals, including iCBT modules (internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), notifications and tracking tools, optional group coaching, and more. Access the ALAViDA TRAiL.