Alcohol and the heart
Long-term excessive drinking increases your risk of developing problems with your heart
Long-term heavy drinking can damage your heart, arteries or other blood vessels throughout your body. This damage is called cardiovascular disease (also known as CVD).
Cardiovascular disease leads to the death of more than 160,000 people every year in the UK,1 mostly from heart disease and stroke. It’s one of the most important reasons not to drink more than the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMOs) low risk drinking guidelines, to help to reduce your risk.
We have lots of advice and tools that can help you find out how your drinking compares, help you to cut down and stay on track.
Regularly drinking more than the UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines, can increase your risk of developing heart disease.
This is because drinking at this level can:
There are lots of different types of heart disease. In the UK, coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type, and can lead to sudden death from a major heart attack. It causes the typical chest pain known as angina and is also a common cause of problems ranging from less serious heart attacks to chronic heart failure.
CHD happens when there is a gradual build-up of fatty deposits on the walls of the arteries in your heart (the coronary arteries) on which blood clots may form. These deposits cause the artery to narrow, and make it harder for it to supply your heart muscle with the oxygen and nutrients which it needs to function normally.4
The most commonly known symptoms of coronary heart disease are known as ‘angina’. These usually include chest pain and shortness of breath on exertion.4
Someone has a heart attack when one or more of their coronary arteries become blocked. This stops blood supply to the heart’s muscles, starving it of oxygen. This means the heart can’t pump properly, and in severe cases it may stop beating altogether (a cardiac arrest). If a cardiac arrest isn’t reversed (using CPR and, if needed, a defibrillator), the person dies.4
Damage to the heart muscle can lead to heart failure – when your heart can no longer pump blood around your body efficiently.5
This leads to symptoms such as swelling of the ankles and shortness of breath which can affect you for the rest of your life and often become progressively worse.
Sometimes known as ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’, binge drinking can make your heart beat irregularly. It gets its name because cases are more common around holiday times or after weekends, when people tend to drink more.6
Holiday Heart Syndrome tends to come on after episodes of heavy drinking – typically at least 15 units (about seven and a half pints of 4% beer or one and a half bottles of 13% wine) in a 24-hour period.
The irregular heart beat caused by holiday heart syndrome will make you feel breathless, tired and affect your blood pressure. These factors together may make you feel quite unwell as well as increasing the risk of a heart attack or sudden death.6
There is some evidence that low levels of alcohol consumption can be protective against coronary heart disease, but only in a specific section of the population – women over 50 years of age.
Even for women over 50, the risks of harm from alcohol outweigh any small benefit. The evidence for the small benefit to heart health doesn’t justify drinking to protect your heart.
This protective effect is only seen with low levels of alcohol consumption (not more than one unit a day) and doesn’t appear to be dependent on the type of alcoholic drink – for example, there is no evidence that red wine offers extra protection.7
At all levels of alcohol consumption above one unit a day the protective effect disappears and there is instead an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
However, even low-level drinking increases the risks of other very serious illnesses including other types of heart disease, several types of cancer, brain damage, pancreatitis and alcohol-related liver disease. The safest level of drinking is to drink no alcohol at all.8,9
The good news is there are positive lifestyle changes you can make to protect your heart.
Cutting down on alcohol is one of the ways the British Heart Foundation (BHF) advises you can keep your heart healthy.9
If you do choose to drink alcohol, stay within the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week for both men and women, spreading them out during the week and taking several drink-free days.
In addition to drinking less, there are other effective ways to reduce your risk of developing heart disease too. The British Heart Foundation also advises that you should also:10
For help or advice about heart disease, contact the British Heart Foundation. Call their Heart Helpline on 0300 330 3322 or visit www.bhf.org.uk
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
If you’re concerned about someone else's drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm).
Arming yourself with strategies and tips can help you or a loved one take small steps towards big results.
 Global Burden of Disease Alcohol Collaborators. (2018). Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet, 392(10152),1015-1035.
 Haseeb, S., Alexander, B., andBaranchuk, A. (2017). Wine and cardiovascular health: A comprehensive review. Circulation. 136, 1434–1448.
 Chiva-Blanch, G. and Badimon, L. (2020). Benefits and Risks of Moderate Alcohol Consumption on Cardiovascular Disease: Current Findings and Controversies. Nutrients, 12(1), 108.
Last Reviewed: 28th October 2021
Next Review due: 28th October 2024