A glass of red wine with dinner is good for your heart — or is it? Some studies claim that alcoholic drinks, such as red wine, may be good for cardiovascular health, while others warn that alcohol use can raise the risk of health problems, such as alcoholism, high blood pressure, stroke and some types of cancer.
Both conclusions can be valid, but like most health advice, what is right for one individual may be wrong for another. This is especially true of alcohol use. Some people may benefit from a few drinks a week, while others should avoid alcohol completely.
“Many factors can be involved in making an appropriate recommendation about alcohol, including your heart health, family history of heart disease, whether you have diabetes or other health conditions and more,” says Julio Romero, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Solana Beach.
Your doctor is the best source of advice on how alcohol can affect your heart health, but here is an overview of the potential benefits and risks.
Multiple studies published over the past few years have concluded that drinking alcohol — especially red wine — may be associated with a lower rate of heart disease in some populations. People who drank alcohol in moderation — an average of two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women — had less heart disease than people who abstained.
Red wine is thought to benefit the heart by raising the levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which helps protect the heart and blood vessels from the damaging effects of free oxygen radicals in the blood. The skins of red grapes contain substances called flavonoids and other antioxidants, which improve HDL function.
However, the benefits found in these studies may not be due to alcohol alone. Other lifestyle factors, such as increased physical activity exercise and a healthy diet, may have affected participants’ cardiovascular health as well. Regular physical activity also can increase HDL or good cholesterol.
Additionally, you need not drink red wine to get the protective benefits of flavonoids. Red grapes, red grape juice and berries also contain these antioxidants.
The strongest evidence is in favor of drinking wine, but some evidence recently showed beer and other types of alcohol may provide the same benefits related to increasing good cholesterol.
Alcohol may be beneficial, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol can increase the risk of problems, including high blood pressure and high levels of harmful blood fats called triglycerides.
“Many alcoholic beverages are high in calories, which can lead to obesity and a greater risk of developing diabetes and related cardiac problems,” says Dr. Romero. “Excessive drinking and binge drinking or drinking a lot of alcohol over a short period can lead to stroke.” Heavy drinkers who reduce their alcohol intake can lower their stroke risk, Dr. Romero adds.
In addition to heart problems, excessive drinking can cause liver disease and digestive problems.
Regardless of the heart benefits, some people should not drink any alcoholic beverages. This includes pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. Drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects and fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol can also be passed on to a baby through breast milk.
If you take aspirin to lower your risk of blood clots or if you use it often for headaches or pain, be aware that alcohol can raise the risk of stomach bleeding. Ask your doctor about drinking alcohol if you take aspirin or other blood-thinning medication.
“For most people, drinking alcohol in moderation is fine,” says Dr. Romero. “But make sure to talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of alcohol on your individual health.”