Most people have heard about the studies that have said that alcohol may actually be good for your heart. These studies purport that moderate amounts of alcohol may thin your blood and improve heart health.
When your blood flows through your veins more easily, you can avoid high blood pressure, which puts a strain on your heart and arteries that can eventually lead to heart disease. If alcohol can act as a blood thinner, it stands to reason that it could potentially improve your heart health over time.
In fact, a 2016 study found that the anticoagulant effects of moderate alcohol use could reduce your risk of ischemic stroke.
However, it’s also known that heavy alcohol use can cause a variety of health problems, including heart diseases. In the 2016 study, researchers also pointed out that heavy alcohol use could lead to an increased risk of stroke. So how does alcohol work in your blood and your body? Does it actually thin your blood? Why does it increase your stroke risk?
Learn more about the effects of alcohol in your body and its effects on blood and your heart.
Drinking alcohol allows it you enter your bloodstream through your digestive system. Once it enters your blood, it’s filtered by your liver before it’s able to enter your brain. Your body is able to store water, sugars, and fats, and everything else is processed out.
Because your body has no way to store alcohol, it prioritizes processing it before anything else you eat or drink. That’s partially why you may feel bloated after a night of drinking. The body essentially treats it like poison. Your liver is pretty efficient in filtering your blood, but it can only handle so much alcohol at a time. When you exceed the amount it can deal with, it slips past and makes it to your brain and starts to have its intoxicating effects.
Moderate drinking involves limiting the amount of alcohol you consume to what your liver can handle. If you drink only one drink in two hours, your liver will be able to process the majority of that out of your blood before it reaches your brain.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a standard drink is about 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor, 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol), five ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol), and eight to nine ounces of malt liquor. One standard drink for women and two standard drinks for men per day may improve heart health, according to the studies. Any more than that could start to do more harm than good.
Alcohol can act as an anticoagulant in moderate amounts. Coagulation refers to when blood cells stick together and form clumps. These clumps can form partial blockages in your blood vessels that raise pressure.
The strain on your vessels can cause your blood vessel walls to thicken, which further raises blood pressure. If a block forms in the brain, it can cause an ischemic stroke, which starves parts of the brain of oxygen. If a clot forms in the heart, it can cause cardiac arrest. Certain medications are used to thin the blood in people with hypertension. Since alcohol can thin the blood in a similar way, it can help prevent strokes and heart attacks.
However, it’s worth noting that thinning the blood may increase your risk of a different kind of stroke called a hemorrhagic stroke. Blood vessel blockages can also form because of high-cholesterol diets. Plaque build-up can cause blockages in your blood vessels that can swell and burst.
Blood will start to pour out of the vessel but will quickly clot to plug the hole. This can often make the blockage work, but at least you aren’t bleeding. If you have thin blood, you may hemorrhage more blood before it’s able to clot. In cases where alcohol or blood thinners are used in excess, ruptures can cause a stroke because not enough blood makes it to the brain.
Because alcohol can thin your blood, you are discouraged from drinking it before medical surgery. Drinking alcohol within 24 hours of surgery can cause you to bleed more throughout the procedure. In very bad cases, it can cause people to bleed out and die. In other cases, blood can be difficult to manage, which can obscure what the surgeon is trying to do, leading to complications.
If you’re taking any medication, it’s wise to be careful about alcohol consumption. Many different medications can have potentially dangerous effects when they’re mixed. However, since blood thinners and alcohol can both act as anticoagulants, it’s possible to cause them to potentiate, leading to bleeding complications or low blood pressure.
Chronic alcohol use can be even more dangerous when mixed with blood thinners. Alcoholism can damage your liver and kidneys, which can impair your ability to process blood thinners. This can also lead to low blood pressure and bleeding complications.
Excessive drinking and chronic alcohol use can raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels. Binge drinking can temporarily raise your blood pressure, and consistent heavy drinking can raise cause hypertension. High blood pressure can lead to several long-term health risks like heart diseases, heart attack, and stroke. However, heavy drinkers who cut back can usually lower their blood pressure.
Larsson, S. C., Wallin, A., Wolk, A., & Markus, H. S. (2016, November 24). Differing association of alcohol consumption with different stroke types: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-016-0721-4
Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 12). High blood pressure (hypertension). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373410
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018, December 13). What Is A Standard Drink? Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Alcohol Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/pharmacotherapi-1
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, April 08). Blood Thinners | Anticoagulants. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/bloodthinners.html