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Heart Disease and Alcohol

Heart Disease and AlcoholIf you don’t drink already, don’t start. If you do drink, talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation. Some people should not drink at all, like women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, people under the age of 21 and people with certain health conditions. Drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood known as triglycerides. A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol has been associated with fatty buildup in the artery walls. That, in turn, can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Excessive drinking can also lead to high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, heart arrhythmia and even death from alcohol poisoning. And it can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways, affecting the way the brain works. Plus, all the extra calories from drinking alcohol can lead to obesity and a higher risk of developing diabetes.

However, moderate drinking (one drink a day for women and two for men), appears to protect some people against heart disease. One drink is 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. But before you break out that cocktail shaker, know this: No research has proved a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health. The best-known positive health effect of alcohol is a small increase in HDL, or good cholesterol. But regular physical activity is a more effective way to raise HDL cholesterol.

The American Heart Association does not recommend drinking wine or any other form of alcohol to gain potential health benefits. Instead, take steps to lower cholesterol, control high blood pressure, manage weight, get enough physical activity, stay away from tobacco and follow a healthy diet.

How to Cut Down on Drinking

If you feel you are drinking too much, here are tips that can help you cut down on the amount of alcohol you are consuming:

Keep track. Keep track of how much you drink. Some examples include: a drinking tracker card in your wallet, check marks on a kitchen calendar, or notes in a mobile phone, notepad or personal digital assistant. Making note of each drink before you drink it may help you slow down when needed.

Count and measure: Know the standard drink sizes so you can count your drinks accurately.

Set goals: Decide how many days a week you want to drink and how many drinks you'll have on those days. It's a good idea to have some days when you don't drink.

Find alternatives: If drinking has occupied a lot of your time, then fill free time by developing new healthy activities, hobbies, and relationships, or renewing ones you've missed.

Avoid triggers: What triggers your urge to drink? If certain people or places make you drink even when you don't want to, try to avoid them. If certain activities, times of day, or feelings trigger the urge, plan something else to do instead of drinking.

Plan to handle urges: When you cannot avoid a trigger and an urge hits, consider these options: Remind yourself of your reasons for changing; talk things through with someone you trust; get involved with a healthy, distracting activity, such as physical exercise or a hobby that doesn't involve drinking; or instead of fighting the feeling, accept it and ride it out without giving in, knowing that it will soon pass.

Know your no: You're likely to be offered a drink at times when you don't want one. Have a polite, convincing "no, thanks" ready. The faster you can say no to these offers, the less likely you are to give in. If you hesitate, it allows you time to think of excuses to go along.

Benefits of Reducing Alcohol Intake

Some of the immediate benefits include:

  • feeling better in the mornings
  • being less tired during the day
  • better looking skin
  • feeling more energetic
  • better weight management

Some of the long-term benefits include:

  • Mood: There's a strong link between heavy drinking and depression, and hangovers often make you feel anxious and low. If you already feel anxious or sad, drinking can make this worse, so cutting down may put you in a better mood generally.
  • Sleep: Drinking can affect your sleep. Although it can help some people fall asleep quickly, it can disrupt your sleep patterns and stop you sleeping deeply. So cutting down on alcohol should help you feel more rested when you wake up.
  • Behavior: Drinking can affect your judgement and behavior. You may behave irrationally or aggressively when you're drunk. Memory loss can be a problem during drinking and in the long term for regular heavy drinkers.
  • Heart: Long-term heavy drinking can lead to your heart becoming enlarged. This is a serious condition that can't be completely reversed, but stopping drinking can stop it getting worse.
  • Immune system: Regular drinking can affect your body’s ability to fight infections. Heavy drinkers tend to catch more infectious diseases.

If you or your loved ones have any questions regarding alcohol-related programs offered at RWJBarnabas Health, please visit our “Alcohol and Drug Dependency” page.

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