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While many UK residents are familiar with the effects alcohol has on the liver, knowledge of how problematic drinking affects our vascular organs is less widespread.
However, whether they’re clued up on cardiovascular illness or not, a tragic percentage of Britain’s population suffers the effects of alcoholic heart disease.
Statistics compiled by The British Heart Foundation (BHF) have helped give a quantitative sense of the scale of heart and circulatory disease’s burden in the UK. In 2021, BHF found that alcohol misuse was a direct risk factor in 1% of reported heart and circulatory diseases.
However, it’s thought that alcohol misuse is an indirect risk factor in a much higher percentage of hospital admissions for heart disease.
For example, high systolic blood pressure (hypertension) was a risk factor in 46.2% of heart disease cases, and there is much evidence to suggest alcohol overuse is a leading cause of hypertension.
Unfortunately, recent NHS data sets paint an equally worrying picture of alcoholic heart disease’s prevalence in the UK.
NHS reports show that alcoholic cardiovascular diseases (conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels) kill about 43,000 people under the age of 75 in the UK every year.
Since several studies claimed that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol could lower the risk of heart disease, there has been a concerted effort to separate fact from fiction.
In popular science, many reports have circulated stating that light to moderate drinking lowers the risk of coronary heart disease- but just how true is this?
There is some evidence to suggest that moderate amounts of alcohol may help to raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, if only slightly.
This could help to limit the formation of atheroma: the degeneration of artery walls caused by fatty deposits or the build-up of scar tissue.
While these studies may sound promising, experts have since advised people not to continue, or start consuming alcohol moderately in the hopes that their hearts will benefit.
It’s now widely accepted that alcohol’s long-term effects on the heart are too dangerous to be worth the slightly reduced risk of developing coronary heart disease.
As always, any positive effects of drinking must be weighed against serious physiological ramifications: such as arrhythmia, heart disease, and the increased risk of stroke and heart attacks.
The effects of alcohol on the heart are often felt right away. After just one alcoholic beverage, the blood vessels in our heart relax and expand a process known as vasodilation. As we consume more alcohol, the vasodilation process often causes a slight increase in blood pressure.
As the alcohol enters your bloodstream, it can also induce a temporary rise in heart rate known as “holiday heart syndrome”, or by its scientific name: tachycardia.
This occurs when someone’s heart rhythm exceeds the resting figure of 100 beats per minute and can cause a fluttering feeling in the chest, or no symptoms at all.
Not everyone will experience such changes to their heart rate and blood pressure when they drink, however. Individuals who have underlying health conditions, take certain medications or have consumed a lot of alcohol are more likely to experience alcohol-induced tachycardia.
If they only happen once or a few times, changes in heart rate and blood pressure may be harmless or temporary. However, they can negatively affect the health of your heart as time goes on to produce an array of long-term impacts.
Prolonged or excessive drinking habits have been linked to numerous heart and cardiovascular issues. Many of these problems eventually lead to forms of heart disease affecting the valves, arteries, and muscles of the vascular system.
Arrhythmia, otherwise known as atrial fibrillation, is a long-term form of irregular heartbeat where the chambers of the heart don’t beat in sync with one another.
Due to the cardiovascular stress response caused by alcohol, even one glass of wine can raise your heart rate by at least 5 beats per minute.
Over time, alcohol disrupts the electrical signals that keep the heart beating at a regular pace. In turn, this increases blood pressure and an individual’s risk of developing blood clots and sustaining a stroke.
If alcohol-induced atrial arrhythmias are diagnosed early and treated with alcohol cessation, the prognosis is good as the disease is reversible.
However, if the condition is left untreated, it may culminate in severe cardiomyopathy, valvular disease, and ultimately death.
In a study conducted by the Harvard Medical school, researchers created three-dimensional structural maps of the heart’s left atrium (one of the two upper chambers) in people with atrial fibrillation.
Compared with light drinkers and non-drinkers, moderate drinkers had more visual evidence of scarring and electrical signalling problems in their atria (all of the heart’s chambers).
Another observational study showed that the more someone drinks daily, the more likely they are to be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.
By tracking people over the age of 14 years old, researchers found that even one drink per day was linked to a 16% higher risk of developing arrhythmia, compared with abstaining from alcohol.
Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy is a dangerous disease in which chronic, long-term drinking has damaged the heart’s muscles.
This damage occurs because, with each alcoholic beverage, parts of the heart stretch and enlarge: causing them to weaken.
Many experts liken this effect to how a spring or rubber band weakens when it has been over-stretched. The parts of the heart most vulnerable to the stretching caused by alcohol are, unfortunately, some of the most integral to its functioning.
The muscles controlling the left and right ventricles of the heart are particularly vulnerable as they do the majority of the heart’s work.
The right ventricle supplies the lungs with blood while the left ventricle pumps blood to the entire body.
When these muscles are weakened, the ventricles cannot pump blood as effectively. When it can’t pump enough blood, the heart must expand to hold the extra blood: causing the muscles to become thinner and enlarged.
This makes the entire body vulnerable to life-threatening problems. Because the lack of blood flow disrupts all the body’s major functions, those with cardiomyopathy are at a higher risk of developing blood clots or experiencing total heart failure.
Many people can live with this condition if it’s caught early by clinicians and if they abstain from alcohol: with some even able to reverse the disease.
However, others will experience symptoms and related problems for the rest of their life: which is why receiving a medical assessment sooner rather than later is vital for heavy drinkers.
Most of the symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy occur because the condition changes the entire structure of the heart. Commonly encountered symptoms include heart palpitations, chest pain particularly when active, feeling lightheaded or passing out trouble breathing, and fatigue.
If someone starts encountering these symptoms all of a sudden, it’s likely that alcohol-induced damage to the heart muscle has led to heart failure.
This is when the heart can no longer pump blood around the body efficiently and affects many individuals for the rest of their lives.
People who have developed alcoholic cardiomyopathy are also at risk of suffering from a heart attack: a medical emergency wherein the flow of blood to the heart is interrupted.
This is because enlarged hearts afflicted with alcoholic cardiomyopathy have trouble pumping blood: increasing the risk of an interrupted flow.
An alcoholic heart attack usually occurs when there is a build-up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in the heart‘s coronary arteries. This is because levels of fat in the blood are raised when we consume alcohol, meaning there is an increased presence of triglycerides in the heart’s arteries.
Individuals with high triglycerides often have low levels of beneficial cholesterol, but dangerously high levels of bad cholesterol. With years of continual heavy drinking, bad cholesterol will begin to lodge in the wall of the heart’s arteries and form areas of plaque.
If a piece of this plaque breaks off and becomes lodged, it often leads to a serious condition known as atherosclerosis: where someone’s arteries are almost completely clogged. This greatly increases the chance of suffering from an alcohol-related heart attack.
An individual’s risk of developing an alcohol-related heart attack will also depend on a variety of factors: most notably, their weight. Because most alcoholic drinks have high-calorie content, a person is likely to gain weight through drinking.
As an individual’s weight increases, their blood pressure will also rise: meaning that the force of blood flowing through the heart’s arteries is consistently too high.
The excess strain and resulting damage cause the heart’s coronary arteries to slowly narrow from a build-up of plaque: leading to both heart attacks and strokes.
With uncontrolled, chronic alcohol consumption, many individuals are unknowingly contributing to their risk of developing a stroke.
The term stroke describes a scenario where blood flow to a particular portion of the brain is cut off. This is often caused by blocked arteries in the heart that are often a direct result of long-term alcohol use.
As previously explored, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can also induce atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of irregular heartbeat linked to an increased risk of stroke.
Unfortunately, around 1.2 million people in the UK suffer from AF and its ability to form blood clots in the heart.
These clots can form obstructions in the arteries and prevent blood from reaching the brain: leading to sudden death or lifelong health consequences.
Alcohol’s effects on the heart can increase the risk of two types of strokes occurring: ischemic stroke, and haemorrhagic stroke. Both types can result in the loss of someone’s sensory functions (touch, temperature sensations), or their motor functions (movement).
When someone suffers from an ischemic stroke, one of the arteries supplying blood to the brain has been blocked. This blockage often results from a clot that has formed in the artery or a foreign body such as a segment of fat.
Consuming alcohol increases the risk of ischemic stroke for a host of reasons: many of which relate to alcoholic heart disease. Irregular heartbeat and weakened heart muscles can cause clots which then become lodged in a blood vessel in the brain.
In recent years, clinicians and experts have avoided using the term “safe” when providing their guidelines for alcohol consumption. Due to alcohol’s ability to affect every cell in the body in addition to the heart, the term “low risk” has been applied to official drinking recommendations.
In 2016, guidance published by the UK Chief Medical Officers stated that both men and women are safest not to drink more than 14 units per week regularly. If you drink around 14 units in one week, it’s best to spread this evenly over three days or more.
Of course, there are millions of people worldwide who have developed heart problems without alcohol consumption being a contributing factor. Genetic predispositions mean that many people develop heart rhythm conditions, or are at increased biological risk of developing heart murmurs.
For individuals with pre-existing arrhythmia or conditions that cause arrhythmias, drinking alcohol can heighten the risk of their condition worsening.
Episodes of binge drinking should be avoided, as the quantity of alcohol puts the heart under increased strain. However, drinking alcohol on a single occasion shouldn’t lead to any adverse effects.
If you’re someone who is taking medication for a heart problem, potential interactions between alcohol and the drug should be thoroughly investigated before drinking. This is because, for a lot of people on long-term medications, alcohol can make the drug less effective.
For example, if you’re taking an anticoagulant like warfarin, drinking alcohol can impact the efficacy of the drug.
Alcohol slows down how quickly your body breaks down warfarin, meaning that drinking alcohol can lead to a buildup of the drug in your body.
Medications such as statins that are prescribed for those with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease also interact negatively with alcohol. This is because statins act directly on the liver and can cause further damage to the organ when combined with alcohol.
Fortunately, there are positive lifestyle changes you can make to protect your heart from the short and long-term impacts of alcohol consumption. The British Heart Foundation advises that the best way to keep your heart healthy is to cut down on your alcohol intake.
If you do decide to drink alcohol, it’s a good idea to stay within the UK Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines. You should also spread out your alcoholic drinks during the week and take several alcohol-free days to remain healthy.
Drinking less might seem like an obvious step toward improving your heart health, but there are many more effective ways to reduce your risk of developing heart problems.
The British Heart Foundation also advises that you should quit smoking and manage your weight to promote optimal cardiovascular health and avoid adverse effects.
Losing weight can drastically improve heart health by reducing pressure on arteries, meaning the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump blood to the rest of the body. This results in lower blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels — the “bad” kind of cholesterol that can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Regarding losing weight, another heart-healthy lifestyle choice is to make sure you get plenty of exercise. Walking, running, swimming, and other vigorous heart-pumping exercises improve the muscles’ ability to draw oxygen from the circulating blood.
In turn, this reduces the need for the heart—a muscular organ itself—to work harder to pump more blood to the muscles. Moreover, exercise aids in blood pressure control. High blood pressure, as previously mentioned, is a major risk factor for heart disease and cardiovascular issues.
Exercising can also help manage stress: a familiar feeling for many of us that have many physical and mental ramifications. A 2016 study suggested that stress management may help reduce the frequency of ventricular and supraventricular arrhythmias while also boosting the quality of life.
Healthy stress management techniques often include getting that all-important exercise: such as yoga, tai chi, or pilates. Other useful activities for managing stress include breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, and mindfulness.
If you’re ready to change your relationship with alcohol and begin the process of recovery, our team at Rehab 4 Alcoholism are here to help.
We know that discussing a potential problem with alcohol can be difficult, whether it’s your own or that of a loved one.
That’s why we’ve developed a confidential, expert service providing those in need with professional advice.
Our team consists of addiction experts, many of whom have been in problematic relationships with alcohol themselves and so know exactly what you’re going through.
Upon reaching out on 0800 111 4108, we’ll arrange your industry-leading assessment with one of our experienced admissions officers conducted in complete confidence.
They’ll be able to gauge the severity of your alcohol consumption and help you decide what steps to take next.
Rehab 4 Alcoholism has access to over 100 rehabs throughout the United Kingdom and abroad, with each clinic carefully vetted and certified.
We can offer free advice and immediate access to rehab services throughout the country to cover most budgets, locations and circumstances.
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