Alcohol and blood pressure

Get the facts on blood pressure and how you can help to keep yours in check.

One in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure (1), also known as ‘hypertension’. If you regularly drink above the lower risk guidelines, you increase your risk of developing the condition. Get the facts on blood pressure and how you can help keep yours in check.

What is blood pressure?

When your heart beats, it pumps blood round your body to give the body the energy and oxygen it needs. Pressure is needed to make the blood circulate. The pressure pushes against the walls of your arteries (blood vessels) and your blood pressure is a measure of the strength of this pushing combined with the resistance from the artery walls.

A normal heart pumps blood around the body easily, at a low pressure. High blood pressure means that your heart must pump harder and the arteries have to carry blood that’s flowing under greater pressure.

This puts a strain on your arteries and your heart, which in turn increases your risk of a heart attack, a stroke or of suffering from kidney disease. (2)

You can't usually feel or notice high blood pressure

Around a third of people in England have high blood pressure and many don't know it. This is because high blood pressure very rarely causes any obvious symptoms.

There isn’t always a clear explanation as to why someone’s blood pressure is high. However, there are several things that can play a part:

  • regularly drinking too much alcohol
  • not doing enough exercise
  • being overweight
  • not eating a healthy diet that includes enough fruit or vegetables
  • a family history of high blood pressure
  • consuming too much salt.

The only way of knowing if there’s a problem is to have your blood pressure measured. You can have this done at your GP surgery, some local pharmacies, or you can buy a blood pressure monitor from the chemist.

High blood pressure is a major cause of stroke and heart attack

You can reduce your risk of having a stroke or heart attack by lowering your blood pressure.

Stroke

Uncontrolled high blood pressure puts a strain on blood vessels all over the body, including vital arteries in the brain. This strain can cause vessels to weaken or become clogged up, which in turn can lead to blockage of the blood vessels taking blood to the brain or bleeding into the brain.

Either way it can result in a stroke.

You can recognise a stroke using the FAST test:

  • FACIAL weakness: Can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped?
  • ARM weakness: Can the person raise both arms?
  • SPEECH problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
  • TIME to call 999

If a person fails any one of these tests, phone 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Heart attack

If you have high blood pressure you’re also more at risk of having a heart attack or developing heart disease in the future. Because of the increased strain on your heart and blood vessels, untreated high blood pressure can cause, angina (chest pain and breathlessness caused when the blood supply to the muscles of the heart is restricted) and may eventually lead to a heart attack.

The symptoms of a heart attack vary from one person to another. You may feel tightness or pain in your chest. This may spread to your arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach. For some people, the pain or tightness is severe, while others may feel nothing more than a mild discomfort. As well as having chest pain or discomfort you may feel light-headed or dizzy and short of breath. You may also feel nauseous or vomit.

The sooner you get emergency treatment, the greater your chances of survival and the more of your heart muscle can be saved.

Phone 999 for an ambulance immediately if you suspect you or someone else is having a heart attack.

Can alcohol be good for the heart? We dispel the myths behind the headlines

Other effects of high blood pressure

High blood pressure can also cause kidney damage and damage to the retina (the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye which allows you to see).

Cutting down on alcohol can reduce high blood pressure

One of the best things you can do to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level is to drink within the lower risk guidelines.

Alcohol can have a serious long-term effect on blood pressure. According to the Department of Health, men who regularly consume more than eight units of alcohol a day (more than double the lower risk guidelines for men) are four times more likely to develop high blood pressure. Women who regularly consume more than six units of alcohol (more than double the lower risk guidelines for women) a day double their risk of developing high blood pressure. (3)

Need help cutting down? Get some practical tips here

Healthy diet and exercise help to lower blood pressure

The more you weigh, the higher your blood pressure is likely to be – particularly if you carry a lot of your excess weight around your middle.

As well as drinking alcohol within the daily unit guidelines, there are other changes that you can make to your diet that can help you maintain a healthy blood pressure (4):

  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables: They’re low in salt and fat and high in potassium and vitamins A and C, which can help to lower blood pressure.
  • Cut down on fats, particularly saturated fats: They can thicken the lining of your arteries, putting you at greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Stick to the recommended daily level of salt in your diet – six grams: when you eat too much salt, your body holds extra water to “wash” it from your body. In some people, this may cause blood pressure to rise.
  • Keep caffeine to a minimum: it can temporarily raise your heart rate and your blood pressure. If you regularly have more than four to five cups a day, it’s a good idea to start cutting down. (5)

It’s a myth that stress and bad temper cause high blood pressure

Stress raises your heart rate, and therefore your blood pressure, in the short term. But it’s not been proven that stress alone has a long-lasting effect on your blood pressure.

However, the things people tend to do to combat stress, such as eating junk food and drinking to excess, can cause long-term blood pressure problems. If you experience stress, try alternative ways of coping with it such as exercise or talking to a friend about what’s worrying you.

Facts from the Blood Pressure Association

  • One in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure.
  • Of those people with high blood pressure, one in three are unaware that they have it.
  • Every day, 350 people have a preventable stroke or heart attack caused by high blood pressure.(6)

How is blood pressure measured?

A blood pressure reading consists of two numbers or levels, the systolic pressure and the diastolic pressure:

  • Systolic pressure is measured when the heart beats and pumps out blood
  • Diastolic pressure is measured between beats, when your heart rests and your blood pressure falls.
  • They are shown as one number on top of the other and measured in mmHg, which means millimetres of mercury. If your reading is 120/80mmHg, you might hear your doctor or nurse saying your blood pressure is "120 over 80".

Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, your blood pressure should be below 140/90mmHg. (7)

Staying in control

The government advises that people should not regularly drink more than the lower risk guidelines. 

Here are three ways you can cut back and keep your drinking under control.

1. Keep track of what you’re drinking. Your liver can't tell you if you're drinking too much, but the MyDrinkaware drink tracking tool can. It can even help you cut down.

2. Eat well. A healthy meal before you start drinking, and low-fat, low-salt snacks between drinks can help to slow down the absorption of alcohol. They’ll help keep your blood pressure down too.

3. Give alcohol-free days a go. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is one of the main reasons why many medical experts recommend taking regular days off from drinking to ensure you don't become addicted to alcohol. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.

Further information

Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.

Blood Pressure Association: offers a range of information to help you take control of, or prevent, high blood pressure. Website: www.bpassoc.org.uk Information line: 0845 241 0989.

British Heart Foundation:for help, facts and lifestyle advice. Website: www.bhf.org.uk Heart Helpline: 0300 330 3311.

The Stroke Association: for information or advice about stroke. Website: www.stroke.org.uk Stroke Helpline: 0303 303 3100.

Are you drinking too much?

Find out how many units you are drinking

Compare your drinking to the government's lower risk guidelines.

Try our Unit Calculator

Take a drinking self assessment

Answer these simple questions and find out what kind of a relationship you have with alcohol.

Assess your drinking

How to cut down

We have many tips and strategies for cutting down at home or when out and about.

Tips on how to cut down

References

Page updated: September 2014