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Alcohol and Heart Health: Separating Fact from Fiction

wine corks formed into a heart

Does a glass of wine a day keep the doctor away? There’s a popular belief that alcohol — especially red wine — is good for the heart. But the truth isn’t so clear-cut, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist John William (Bill) McEvoy, M.B.B.Ch., M.H.S

Here’s what you should know before you raise a glass to your health. 

Does Alcohol Protect Against Heart Problems?

Some studies have shown an association between moderate alcohol intake and a lower risk of dying from heart disease

But it’s hard to determine cause and effect from those studies, says McEvoy. Perhaps people who sip red wine have higher incomes, which tend to be associated with more education and greater access to healthier foods. Similarly, red wine drinkers might be more likely to eat a heart-healthy diet. 

There is some evidence that moderate amounts of alcohol might help to slightly raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Researchers have also suggested that red wine, in particular, might protect the heart, thanks to the antioxidants it contains. 

But you don’t have to pop a cork to reap those benefits. Exercise can also boost HDL cholesterol levels, and antioxidants can be found in other foods, such as fruits, vegetables and grape juice. 

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Whether or not moderate drinking is good for your heart is open to debate. However, for most people, it doesn’t appear to be harmful to the heart, McEvoy says — but the key word is “moderate.” 

Moderate drinking is defined as an average of one drink per day for women and one or two for men. A drink might be less than you think: 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

Some people should avoid even that much, McEvoy adds. He advises patients not to drink at all if they have certain heart rhythm abnormalities or have heart failure. “There are certain situations where it’s best the patient doesn’t drink any alcohol,” he says.

Does Excessive Drinking Contribute to Heart Disease?

Heavy drinking, on the other hand, is linked to a number of poor health outcomes, including heart conditions. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure or stroke. Excessive drinking can also contribute to cardiomyopathy, a disorder that affects the heart muscle.

What’s more, alcohol can contribute to obesity and the long list of health problems that can go along with it, McEvoy says: “Alcohol is a source of excess calories and a cause of weight gain that can be harmful in the long term.”  

The takeaway, McEvoy says, is what you probably already knew: If you choose to drink alcohol, stick to moderate levels of drinking, and don’t overdo it. “We’re not talking about going out and drinking yourself merry and then expecting good heart outcomes,” McEvoy says.

 

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