Numerous medical studies have indicated that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may have a positive effect on the heart, by raising good cholesterol and maybe even reducing the risk of heart disease. However, the jury is still out on the effects of alcohol on the heart. Moderate consumption of alcohol--less than one drink a day for women and two for men--may have positive effects, but studies have also shown that heavy drinking may damage the heart and increase blood pressure.
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Moderate alcohol use--one drink a day for women and two per day for men--may have a positive effect on cholesterol. High cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, and studies suggest that moderate use of alcohol may raise HDL cholesterol by as much as 12%. HDL cholesterol is considered the "good" type of cholesterol and you generally want to keep your HDL cholesterol high and your LDL cholesterol low. Researchers have yet to determine exactly how alcohol may increase HDL cholesterol, but research is ongoing.
Coronary Heart Disease
Remarkably, moderate drinking has been linked to decreased rates of heart disease in over 60 medical studies, according to John Hopkins University. These studies have found that moderate drinkers have a heart disease risk anywhere from 20 to 40 per cent less than those who abstain from alcohol. Alcohol may provide this protective effect because it reduces clot formation and prevents arteries from constricting, which may decrease the ability of plaque to stick together and build up in the arteries. Alcohol may also prevent LDL cholesterol from damaging the arteries. However, this protective benefit was seen only in moderate drinkers.
Alcohol use may have a negative effect on blood pressure and the heart in heavy drinkers. A study conducted by Dr. Azra Mahmud looked at men who consumed more than 21 drinks a week and women who had more than 14 drinks per week and measured their heart health in comparison to low and moderate drinkers. Men with the largest alcohol consumption were more likely to have high blood pressure and stiff arteries, and the female heavy drinkers were more likely to have enlarged hearts than those who drank only moderately. Dr. Mahmud speculates that too much alcohol can have a toxic effect on the heart, causing it to work harder and prompting structural changes in the heart muscle.
Having more than one or two drinks a day can also increase your risk of developing an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation. The Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study found that men who were heavy drinkers had a 46 per cent greater risk for atrial fibrillation than men who drank only moderately. This link is believed to exist because large quantities of alcohol may disrupt the electric impulses in the heart or cause changes to the heart's structure. Atrial fibrillation is serious because it can increase your chances of dying if you have a heart attack.
Should You Start?
If you do not drink, the medical research on alcohol may tempt you to have a glass of wine or beer with dinner to protect your heart. However, the American Heart Association recommends that nondrinkers do not start drinking as a way to prevent heart disease. In their opinion, the best prevention for heart disease is maintaining a healthy body weight, eating right and getting enough exercise. Dr. Kaye Middleton Fillmore, with the University of California San Francisco, also argues that the risks of alcohol consumption outweigh the perceived benefits for nondrinkers.
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