In a study published in 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), a team of American researchers used data from more than 14 million adults to measure the effects of alcohol abuse on cardiac health. One of the significant findings was the increased odds of having a heart attack. The researchers learned that excessive alcohol intake increases heart attack risks, even in the absence of any other factors making an attack more likely to occur.
According to Dr. Gregory M. Marcus, director of clinical research in the Division of Cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco and senior author of the JACC study, "One of the most surprising findings... is that people who abused alcohol are at increased risk for heart attack or myocardial infarction."
Alcohol can directly impact heart health in many ways, including:
High Blood Pressure
If you think you are in the clear to indulge more because you do not have high blood pressure, think again. Your blood pressure can rise significantly from just having a few drinks daily, and binge drinking is also linked to a rapid rise in blood pressure. Over time, consistent hypertension contributes to an increased risk of stroke, heart attacks, and heart failure.
Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat, flutter or race? You are experiencing heart palpitations. These palpitations (sometimes caused by excess caffeine, anxiety, strenuous exercise or medications) are usually quite harmless and resolve on their own. But, heart palpitations can also signal a more serious heartbeat irregularity known as atrial fibrillation (AF). Research shows that heavy drinkers are up to 50 percent more likely to suffer from AF than are light- or non-drinkers.
Alcohol interferes with the heart's electrical system and the ability to maintain a steady rhythm. Another factor is long-term heavy drinkers may have heart muscle changes that increase their risk of AF, even before they show symptoms of chronic heart failure. In severe cases, AF can also lead to a life-threatening stroke or pulmonary embolism.
Heart Failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart muscle is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs for nutrients and oxygen. This causes the heart to enlarge, thicken or become stiff. In certain types of heart failure known as congestive heart failure (CHF) one of the hallmark symptoms is the build-up of fluid (edema) in extremities and lungs.
The heart failure patient begins to suffer extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and painful coughing. Everyday activities, climbing stairs, and daily chores become increasingly difficult.
When heavy drinking and alcohol abuse are the catalysts for heart failure, doctors refer to the condition as alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This proves a definitive link between alcoholism and heart disease.
The toxic nature of alcohol damages and weakens the heart muscle and impedes its ability to pump blood efficiently. When it can’t pump out enough blood, the heart expands and becomes thinned and enlarged. Eventually, the heart muscle and blood vessels may stop functioning properly due to the damage and strain.
Even as all of these cardiovascular conditions are potentially life-threatening, alcoholic cardiomyopathy is of particular concern in patients who have sustained significant (and sometimes irreversible) damage to the heart. Outlook and treatment depend on how early the disease is identified and the stage of its progression.
Heart Health After Addiction
Once you quit drinking and realize the seriousness of these conditions, what else can you do to restore your heart health?
The heart is resilient, but the earlier you begin making healthy changes, the better. In advanced stages of heart disease, medications and cardiac rehab may be necessary. But for many, lifestyle changes and a healthy diet are powerful antidotes to fighting and even reversing heart disease. There are ways to nurture yourself and heal the damage caused by long-term drinking.
We can all learn how to manage stress better in our daily lives. This, along with diet and exercise, is a strong combination on the road to recovery. Avoid smoking, sugar, processed and salty foods. Getting enough rest is critical to help recover from the stress of cardiac recovery. Start a gentle exercise routine, meditate or just relax with friends and family.
Research delicious recipes and heart-healthy foods such as fish, walnuts, avocado, flaxseed, and other omega-3 "good fats" to incorporate into your diet. Ask your physician for a referral to a nutritionist, if needed. Add more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables to your meals and reduce meats and animal products, and properly hydrate to keep your blood circulation optimal. Maintain a healthy weight and Body Mass Index (BMI). Work with your physician and regularly screen for high blood pressure, diabetes and review your family history of cardiac illness and risks.
Now is the time to prioritize your health and recovery.