You’ve probably heard that drinking small amounts of wine, beer, and other types of alcohol shouldn’t harm your heart—and it might even help it. But the data are starting to get more complicated.
Doctors generally advise that men should drink no more than 2 drinks a day and women no more than 1 drink a day to stay healthy. (A standard drink is defined as 12 oz of regular beer, 5 oz of wine, and 1.5 oz of distilled spirits, which include rum, gin, vodka, bourbon, scotch, and other types of liquor.)
Some research shows that light drinking may lower the risk for dying from heart problems. But a new study in the European Heart Journal shows that it could increase your risk for atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is a common type of abnormal heartbeat and a major risk factor for stroke.
Researchers looked at the health records and drinking habits of more than 100,000 men and women over a 14-year period. Just 1 drink a day increased the risk of AFib by 16% compared to people who didn’t drink. And the risk of AFib rose with the amount of alcohol a person drank. Compared to those who drank no alcohol, having 2 drinks a day raised the risk by 28%, and at 4 drinks per day, the risk increased it 47%.
Other data have shown that heavy drinking leads to AFib. But the study’s researchers were surprised to find that even small amounts of alcohol led to the condition. Binge drinking—drinking large quantities of alcohol at one time—is especially risky.
Along with an irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations, AFib can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, and fatigue. It can feel like fluttering or thumping, similar to a fish flopping in your chest.
The main risk of AFib is that it increases the risk of having a stroke. When the upper chambers of the heart don’t beat normally and allow the blood to be immediately pumped out to the lower heart chambers, the blood pools in the upper chambers of your heart. This can lead to the formation of blood clots that can then be pumped from the chambers of the heart and cause a blockage in the small vessels of your brain. A blockage in a blood vessel of the brain is what causes a stroke.
Unfortunately, strokes contribute to the death of more than 150,000 people every year. Data show AFib is rising as the US population ages and it’s expected to affect 6 to 12 million people in the US over the next 30 years.
There’s no question that heavier drinking can harm your heart in several ways. But with AFib on the rise, it’s worth thinking about cutting back on even moderate levels.
If you already have heart failure or an abnormal heartbeat, for instance, ask your doctor if it’s wise to imbibe. A recent study found that AFib was less likely to recur when a group of moderate drinkers stopped drinking alcohol, compared to drinkers who continued their normal alcohol habits. When AFib did occur, it took longer to appear.
If you do drink, try to avoid situations where you are likely to get carried away and drink a lot. To lighten your alcohol load, drink water or another non-alcoholic beverage after each alcoholic one. Many kinds of non-alcoholic beers and wine are now available as well so you don’t have to feel left out.
Eating while you drink can also slow the absorption of alcohol and make you feel full so you drink less. Taking these measures will help you make sure that alcohol doesn’t harm your heart in ways that may lead to a stroke!