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Alcohol’s Effects on the Heart

While alcohol was once believed to have heart benefits in moderation, experts now refute this claim. Regardless of drinking habits—whether occasional or heavy—alcohol poses serious risks to heart health, increasing the likelihood of heart disease. It may save your life to recognize the risks associated with alcohol’s effects on the heart.

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How Does Alcohol Affect the Heart?

Alcohol affects the heart in several ways, as well as increasing the chance of alcohol-induced chronic heart issues. While there are conflicting messages about the health benefits of small amounts of alcohol, further research shows this is unlikely.

In general, alcohol use has negative effects on heart health due to alcohol’s likelihood of causing high blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure refers to the condition where blood pumps more forcefully than normal through blood vessels or arteries.

Over time, high blood pressure can put immense strain on your heart and can increase the build-up of plaque in blood vessels, making it the leading cause of cardiovascular disease and risk of heart disease and stroke.

Common effects of alcohol consumption on the heart include:

  • Increased risk of blood clots
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat)
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscle and enlarged heart)
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaque buildup)
  • Increased risk of heart failure

Alcohol’s Immediate Effects on The Heart

When alcohol first enters the bloodstream through the stomach and intestines, it widens blood vessels and travels quickly through the body. Blood traveling through the circulatory system will quickly pass through the heart.

The initial effects of alcohol on the heart include:

  • Increased heart rhythm
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Expanded blood vessels causing increased blood flow to the heart

Alcohol’s Short-Term Effects on the Heart

Whether you engage in moderate drinking, binge drinking, or heavy drinking, even one standard drink can lead to health problems associated with your heart. However, individuals who engage in binge drinking or heavy drinking are at even higher risk of life-threatening heart conditions.

Short-term effects of alcohol on the heart may include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Increased risk of stroke or heart attack

Alcohol’s Long-Term Effects On the Heart

The long-term risks of alcohol intake are most applicable to heavy drinkers who regularly engage in alcohol abuse. However, these health conditions could also occur in people who engage in moderate alcohol consumption but quite consistently.

Long-term effects of alcohol on the heart may include:

  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscle and enlarged heart)
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Increased plaque buildup in arteries and blood vessels
  • Obesity, which causes an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease

The Truth About Alcohol and Heart Health

There have been quite a few old wives’ tales or misinformation spread about “healthy” levels of alcohol consumption and possible health benefits. While some data suggests possible positive improvements, evidence is questionable, and there are many other ways to achieve the same results without alcohol.

Let’s discuss the most common myths surrounding alcohol use and cardiovascular health.

True or False: Alcohol Use Reduces the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease

False. Although there has also been a narrative over the years that small amounts of alcohol (especially red wine) may cause a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, experts have since stated this is not the case.

Limited studies previously suggested drinking small quantities of alcohol could raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels, enhance blood flow, boost antioxidant levels, or even decrease stress and related health effects.

However, these small observational studies have since been debunked, as more recent studies show that even small amounts of alcohol still increase the risk of heart disease.

Besides, the potential positive effects of earlier studies could just as easily be achieved by increasing exercise and eating a healthy diet.

True or False: Alcohol Consumption Prolongs Life

False. Due to alcohol’s negative effect on vascular health, even in small quantities, it’s safe to say that alcohol does not prolong life. According to the American Heart Association, long-term alcohol use and abuse can cause heart damage before symptoms of the damage are noticeable.

Damage to your heart only leads to further health issues and, if anything, can shorten life spans.

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How Alcohol Impacts Blood Pressure

Alcohol’s effect on blood pressure is often the catalyst for further heart dysfunction and disease. Although initial use of alcohol can expand blood vessels and increase blood flow, long-term alcohol abuse can cause the opposite issue.

Alcohol use causes high blood pressure in several ways. First, alcohol increases the production of hormones that can constrict arteries, changing the amount of force needed to distribute blood throughout the body.

Next, alcohol can increase stress hormones such as cortisol, which can further increase blood pressure and heart rate. To make matters worse, long-term heavy alcohol abuse often leads to weight gain and obesity. Obesity is one of the biggest risk factors for developing heart disease.

Alcohol and Cardiovascular Disease

No matter the amount of alcohol you drink, there is a risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Cardiovascular disease or heart disease refers to several heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, heart arrhythmias, and cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscles).

Alcohol increases the risk of developing a heart condition due to its ability to increase inflammation and its effect on blood pressure. Over time, heavy and consistent alcohol abuse can damage the heart or worsen existing heart defects of conditions.

Find Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

If you or a loved one has a problem with heavy drinking or binge drinking, now is the time to seek help before permanent damage is done to your cardiovascular well-being. Being honest with your healthcare provider about your alcohol use and symptoms could be life-saving.

To find treatment options, ask your doctor for a referral to a treatment center or addiction specialist. You can also check out self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery to receive peer support and guidance through your recovery.

If you want to see what options are available where you live, try SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP).

FAQs About the Effects of Alcohol on the Heart

Is wine good for heart health?

No. Despite previous studies claiming small amounts of red wine can prevent the risk of heart disease, these studies have since been disproven. There is no “safe” amount of red wine or alcohol in general.

Although red wine is less damaging to the body due to its moderate anti-inflammatory properties, it still carries similar risks to alcoholic beverages such as beer and liquor.

What does alcohol do to your heart?

Alcohol’s initial effect on your cardiovascular system includes a raised heart rate, increased blood pressure, and higher blood flow due to widened blood vessels. With consistent and long-term alcohol use, these effects only worsen.

Over time, alcohol use can constrict blood vessels, cause high blood pressure, damage heart tissue and muscles, and increase your risk of heart disease.

Common long-term effects of alcohol use on the heart include:

  • Alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscle and enlarged heart)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Increased plaque buildup in arteries and blood vessels
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke

Can drinking alcohol cause a heart attack?

Yes. Heart attack is one of the main risks of excessive alcohol consumption and abuse. A heart attack or myocardial infarction occurs when blood flow is blocked from the heart muscle, starving the heart of oxygen. If the blood flow to the heart does not resume in time, parts of the heart muscle begin to die.

The risk of heart attack is higher for people who drink alcohol due to alcohol’s risk of causing high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attacks.

How do I know if alcohol has damaged my heart?

You may not know if alcohol has damaged your heart, as sometimes the symptoms of heart damage are not noticeable at first. If you’re concerned about heart damage due to drinking but have no symptoms, talk to your doctor about what testing options are available to you.

Common symptoms of heart damage include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fast or irregular heartbeats or heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Poor blood flow to extremities
  • Swelling in ankles, legs, and feet

Why do I get heart palpitations after I drink alcohol?

Alcohol consumption can interrupt the electrical signals in between heart cells by contracting said heart cells each time you drink. These changes in electrical signals can cause heart palpitations or the “fluttering” or “skip beat” sensation.

Although these heart palpitations typically go away after alcohol has left your system, long-term alcohol abuse can cause heart damage to lead to heart arrhythmias or heartbeat irregularities. If left untreated, arrhythmias can cause heart, brain, and organ damage, as well as cardiac arrest, heart failure, and stroke.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  8. Piano, M. R., Mazzuco, A., Kang, M., & Phillips, S. A. (2017, March). Cardiovascular Consequences of Binge Drinking: An Integrative Review With Implications for Advocacy, Policy, and Research. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7318786/
  9. Study Suggests Moderate Drinking Harms Not Protects Heart Health. CardioSmart: American College of Cardiology. (2017, March 7). https://www.cardiosmart.org/news/2019/3/study-suggests-moderate-drinking-harms-not-protects-heart-health

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