The Effects of Alcohol on the Cardiovascular System

By Tim Wood

Published: October 30, 2020

When dealing with addiction, it is important to make yourself aware of the effects that the addictive substance has on both physical and mental health. Alcohol is known to be one of the most common and widely available addictive substances, with alcohol addiction affecting approximately 18 million people in the UK.

It also has a number of dangerous consequences, notably harming the cardiovascular system. This article will discuss what defines addiction and the cardiovascular system, and discuss the links between the two.

The article will then detail the various health conditions relating to the cardiovascular system that arise from alcohol abuse, and outline how to detect these issues.

Defining Addiction

Before discussing alcohol’s effects on the cardiovascular system, it is vital to understand what an addiction to alcohol looks like, and how alcohol can impact people’s lives with or without the addiction factor.

Addiction is defined as being a compulsive and persistent dependence on a certain substance or behaviour. Even if you consume what is considered to be a “safe” amount of alcohol, having a low risk of physical health consequences in no way means that you have no risk – you do not need to have an addiction to put your wellbeing at risk.

Monitoring your alcohol intake can help you gain a better understanding of how much alcohol affects you personally, as it will vary from person to person. There are many different consequences of alcohol intake. One key consequence to be aware of is the impact on the cardiovascular system.

Defining the Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system is the process which both transports nutrients and removes waste products in the body. It is therefore very closely linked with all other body functions. The centre of the cardiovascular system is the heart, which maintains the circulation of blood throughout the body.

It is the blood that carries any nutrients or harmful substances, including too and from the liver where alcohol is processed. Therefore, any harmful byproducts of alcohol will travel through the heart, and across the entire body.

How Does Alcohol Affect Different Areas of the Cardiovascular System?

There are many ways in which alcohol affects the cardiovascular system with varying levels of severity. It is vital to be aware of these different conditions and how they will impact day-to-day life in both the short and long term. It is also important to be aware of the signs and symptoms that these conditions will display so they can be promptly detected.

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1. The Weakening of the Heart Muscles (Cardiomyopathy)

Alcohol consumption puts additional stress on the heart, which can lead to the heart muscle becoming inflamed and weak.

As a result of this, the heart will be unable to effectively transport blood around the circulatory system, leading to a number of issues.

For example, the heart will be unable to pump oxygen around the body at the same rate, resulting in some cells becoming damaged through a lack of oxygen and other nutrients.

2. An Increase in Blood Pressure

Even drinking in excess of three drinks at a time can raise your blood pressure temporarily, but if you are suffering from chronic alcohol addiction, this can become a long term issue. This should be avoided, as an increase in blood pressure will affect the thickness of arteries, consequently increasing the risk of a heart attack or a stroke.

3. Anaemia – Red Blood Cell Deficiencies

An individual who is suffering from alcohol abuse will struggle to produce the usual levels of red blood cells. This often leads to a condition called alcohol-induced anaemia. Typically this condition will result in mild to extreme fatigue, paleness, shortness of breath, or in more serious cases, heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat – a condition that high alcohol intake can also cause independently of anaemia.

4. An Increased Heart Rate (BPM)

Heart rate is measured in BPM – beats per minute. A normal BPM level is 60-100 BPM. Under the influence of alcohol, this can rise, especially when alcohol is consumed heavily on a regular basis.

Alcohol can disrupt the electrical signals that produce a heartbeat, causing tachycardia – the medical term for an increase in heart rate. Regularly experiencing episodes of tachycardia will lead to more serious heart conditions, such as blood clots. This vastly increases the likelihood of a stroke or heart attack.

5. An Irregular Heartbeat

Arrhythmia (a change in the heart rhythm) or heart palpitations (where the heartbeat feels abnormally strong, loud, or fast) often occur as a result of other issues caused by alcohol intake – for example, the weakening of the heart, an increase in blood pressure, or an increase in heart rate.

It is often possible to detect an irregular heartbeat simply through feeling the irregularity in the chest. It is often common to also experience dizziness, breathlessness, and fatigue.  An irregular heartbeat lasting for an extended period of time should be examined by a doctor, as it could mean that overconsumption of alcohol has caused other more lasting issues.

Cardiovascular Diseases – Heart Disease

There are four main types of heart disease that can result from alcohol and resulting issues within the cardiovascular system:

1. Coronary Artery and Vascular Disease

This form of heart disease is the most likely to cause heart attacks – it stems from hardening of the arteries and other issues in the blood vessels. These are issues that can be caused by the consumption of alcohol

2. Heart Rhythm Disorders

Rhythm disorders refer to when the heart is beating erratically, too slow, or too fast. These disorders range from being mild and infrequent to being sudden and fatal. High alcohol consumption that has weakened the heart can often introduce or worsen these disorders

3. Structural Heart Disease

The structural abnormalities found in structural heart disease are acquired through various influences, including wear and tear creating a strain on the heart.

A high intake of alcohol can be a significant factor in adding stress to the heart, whether it is through issues in the arteries, high blood pressure, or issues with an irregular heartbeat

4. Heart Failure

Heart failure is caused by the heart becoming weakened or damaged. This is often through a heart attack or high blood pressure – both conditions that can be caused through the over-consumption of alcohol

Cardiovascular Diseases – Heart Attack

When issues with alcohol consumption continue for an extended period of time, there is a significant increase in the risk of suffering from a heart attack. Damage to the arteries connecting the heart to the rest of the body can restrict the heart from accessing oxygen, which is vital for its function.

If the blood flow to the heart is obstructed by thick, clogged arteries, blood clots can form, triggering a heart attack. A heart attack is usually easy to identify. It will trigger chest discomfort and pain (which can spread to the back, arms, neck, or jaw), breathlessness, and nausea.

Cardiovascular Diseases – Stroke

Heavy alcohol consumption is known to increase your risk of two different types of stroke: ischemic stroke and haemorrhagic stroke. Suffering from a stroke can cause severe and sometimes irreversible damage to the rest of the body, including the skeletal system, the respiratory system, and the digestive system.

1. Ischemic Stroke

Alcohol can lead to the formation of blood clots, usually resulting from high blood pressure, issues with the muscle in the heart, or irregularities in the heart rhythm. If these blood clots become lodged in a blood vessel in the brain, they can cause an ischemic stroke.

2. Haemorrhagic Stroke

This type of stroke is a result of damage and tearing to an artery that is supplying brain tissue. High blood pressure often results in the creation of weak points in the walls of the artery, greatly increasing the chance of bleeding.

It is important to maintain an awareness of other more minor issues caused by alcohol, such as higher blood pressure and occasional heart palpitations. If left untreated, these conditions can accumulate, worsen, and eventually result in severe cardiovascular issues such as heart disease or stroke.


There is a huge variety of cardiovascular issues that stem from the consumption of alcohol, ranging from high blood pressure to heart disease and stroke.

It is important to bear in mind that the individual risk of developing these problems is never the same – for some people, even a low alcohol intake can trigger certain physical issues.

However, it is clear that the higher the alcohol intake – particularly alcohol addiction – the higher the risk of severe complications and repercussions.

It is very easy for alcohol-related issues to escalate. Health conditions with a lower immediate risk to life can slowly build up over time, eventually accumulating in a severe condition such as heart disease.

It is important to monitor alcohol intake in order to ensure that these issues do not build up and are instead kept under control.

Individuals need to be familiar with their personal limits on alcohol consumption – people should not assume that everyone will face the same consequences from the same amount of alcohol.

The effects of alcohol on the cardiovascular system are clearly evident and should be avoided wherever possible.

Ready to get help?

To discover your road to recovery, call us today on 0800 111 41 08

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By Tim Wood

Tim enjoys writing about addiction and recovery, this topic has personally affected him, fuelling his desire to help others.