Can alcohol have any benefits for your heart?
Research has suggested that small amounts of alcohol may have a protective effect on your heart8 9. This benefit appears to be restricted to women over 45 years old drinking well within the CMOs' low risk drinking guidelines. However, the scientific community is still debating whether or not there is a protective effect of alcohol.
Scientists aren’t sure how drinking alcohol at low levels has a protective effect but think there are two main mechanisms:
Preventing artery damage. Alcohol appears to increase the level of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) in the blood. This reduces the amount of fatty deposit (atheroma) which narrows our arteries and makes them more likely to clog.
Preventing blood clots (‘thrombosis’). Alcohol can help prevent the formation of blood clots which can close off the arteries, causing a heart attack. It reduces the stickiness of platelets so they are less ready to clump together to form clots. Small amounts of alcohol with a meal can reduce the sudden rise of a protein (fibrinogen) produced by the liver, which is involved in clot formation.
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More research is needed to show whether drinking red wine is “good for the heart”.
Laboratory studies in animals suggest that antioxidants help to prevent thrombosis10. Red wine has a high concentration of antioxidant substances called flavonoids. White alcoholic drinks, like vodka and cider, contain the least concentration of flavonoids. But other alcohols, such as beer, have nearly the same antioxidant effect as wine.
Much of the interest in red wine comes from the observation that the French (who have a long tradition of drinking red wine) often have healthy hearts and arteries despite typically having high-fat foods in their diet. But studies show that people who drink wine over other types of alcohol tend to live generally healthier lives, smoking less, drinking less and having a healthier diet. So these other factors, rather than the red wine, may in fact be responsible for their good health.
It’s not a good idea to start drinking alcohol to protect yourself against heart disease
Simply put, it’s just not worth it. With alcohol and the heart, it’s a benefit and risk trade off. So, for example, while alcohol’s anti-clotting ability might protect to a limited extent against heart attack, it may increase the risk of haemorrhagic stroke (when a blood vessel bursts causing bleeding inside the brain).
Above the low risk drinking guidelines, alcohol’s potential small benefits for the heart are outweighed by its increased risks of developing other very serious illnesses, such as liver disease or cancer.
There are effective ways to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. To keep your heart healthy, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) advises: