What are the facts about alcohol and heart health?

Drinking alcohol can take a toll on your body, yet some drinks could help to improve your heart health.

Alcohol is a big part of British culture, with around 80% of us drinking at least once a week1 . Whether it's a pint in the pub or a glass of wine after work, we each have our favourite tipple. But indulging in the occasional drink and sticking within the recommended limits could still be affecting your long-term health. It isn't all bad news, as some research suggests some drinks could help to protect your heart.

The majority of alcoholic drinks are extremely high in 'empty' calories; they don't have any real nutritional value. Men and women should be consuming around 2,500 and 2,000 calories daily respectively2. A pint of lager contains around 200 calories while a bottle of red wine can set you back more than 600 – that's equivalent to a large cheeseburger and fries. Burning off these excess calories would take the average person approximately four hours of gentle walking or 6 miles of running. These empty calories can quickly add up, increasing your cholesterol and waistline. Cut down on your consumption and switch to lower-calorie drinks to stay within your limits.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and other red wines do contain antioxidants and other heart-healthy compounds. Some varieties of red wine contain high amounts of resveratrol – a natural polyphenol molecule that's been shown to reduce blood pressure and may lower the amount of bad cholesterol in a person's blood3. Resveratrol has numerous cardioprotective effects but there is no evidence that taking it directly lowers heart disease risk.

The health properties of red wine have been frequently studied in recent times and it's now thought to have heart-protecting effects. Drinking it can increase levels of good cholesterol, decrease oxidative stress in your cells and provide anti-inflammatory effects, all of which can help your heart function. Some studies have concluded that regular wine consumption could lead to a longer life while others have found the opposite to be true4.

The ethanol in alcoholic drinks is a toxin that when consumed, can change how our cells work. Ethanol molecules are broken down by the body within a few hours, creating small amounts of another toxic molecule called acetaldehyde. This can build up in the body's cells, damaging our DNA – this is why chronic alcohol consumption can lead to some forms of cancer.

Limiting your consumption to within the normal levels should help to mitigate these risks. Men and women should aim to consume less than 14 units a week5. This is a recent change from the previously suggested target of 21 units a week, which was found to be more harmful to health. The average bottle of 13.5% ABV wine contains 10 units of alcohol, which is close to this weekly limit. Drinking in moderation and avoiding binge drinking will help your heart stay healthy in the long run.

  1. https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-statistics#:~:text=In%20England%20in%202018%2C%2082,the%20previous%20week%20%5B2%5D.
  2. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calories-in-alcohol/
  3. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.030387
  4. https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/37/5/409/182521#32049436
  5. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/