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Alcohol and your heart

Published 12 December 2005. Updated 19 March 2010.

The effects of alcohol on your cardiovascular system depend on the volume of alcohol consumed. Research findings suggest that one unit of alcohol per day protects the heart but there are safer and healthier ways to achieve the same effect. Consuming more than one unit of alcohol per day is harmful to your heart.

Heart disease risk factors include:

  • A diet high in saturated fats, cholesterol and salt
  • Smoking
  • Hypertension
  • Excess weight
  • Lack of regular exercise
  • High alcohol consumption
  • Stress

Alcohol immediately reduces the heart’s ability to contract and has an indirect effect on the heart’s pumping action.

If the heart’s ability to contract is reduced because of heart disease, your heart’s role in dilating your blood vessels and removing fluid from the bloodstream becomes even more important.

Although alcohol may offer protection from coronary artery disease (CAD), it should not be used to manage chest pain. Alcohol can alleviate the discomfort but will not treat the underlying problem, i.e. the lack of oxygen in the cardiac muscle. If you suffer from coronary artery disease, you should always use nitroglycerin, not alcohol, as a first-line treatment.

Moderate use

Moderate alcohol use is not a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and the effects of occasional alcohol consumption on the cardiac muscle are fleeting.

A follow-up study carried out in Kuopio, Finland suggested that heavy drinking in a short space of time, also known as binge drinking and prevalent in Finland during weekends, may be associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarctions or heart attacks. Heavy one-off consumption may result in atrial fibrillation even in healthy individuals and lead to alcohol poisoning, which can prove fatal.

Excess weight is one of the key factors associated with hypertension. High blood pressure in turn increases the risk of coronary artery disease. The weight gain brought on by alcohol can therefore be an indirect cause of heart disease.

Studies have found that the risk of sudden coronary death among middle-aged men is directly linked to the level of alcohol consumption reported by the subjects. Swedish studies have also identified a link between heavy and problem drinkers and heart attacks and sudden coronary death.


Hangovers can last anywhere between six and 24 hours, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and the duration of the intoxication period. Even if you are perfectly healthy, hangovers can lead to heart arrhythmias, where the heart beats irregularly. If you have a heart condition, you are placing yourself at an even greater risk. In addition to arrhythmias, hangovers are also associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarctions (MI) and strokes.

Exercise during a hangover places a significant strain on your body. Using exercise as a hangover cure – particularly if you are elderly or suffer from cardiovascular disease – is extremely risky.

Heavy and prolonged alcohol consumption

  • Increases the risk of heart arrhythmias
  • Damages the cardiac muscle and may lead to severe heart failure
  • Leads to hypertension, which in turn is associated with a risk of coronary artery disease
  • Increases the risk of MIs and sudden cardiac death
  • May cause angina pectoris (chest pain), which is caused by low oxygen levels in the heart, following even lower than normal strain

The first sign of alcoholic heart disease is the thickening of the cardiac muscle and enlarging of the heart, also known as cardiomyopathy. The heart cannot respond normally to strain, which can lead to shortness of breath. The damage may not be irreversible, however, provided that the alcoholic stops drinking. Long-standing heavy drinking may lead to damage that is slow to improve or permanent.

Alcohol-related arrhythmias often correct themselves. Difficult to manage and persistent arrhythmias may require drug treatment.

A quarter of all sudden and unexpected deaths among young and middle-aged men are thought to be due to alcohol-related atrial arrhythmias.

Lolan Lindroos
Kettutie A Clinic, A Clinic Foundation

Further information (available in Finnish only)

C2HOH Asiaa alkoholista. Alko Oy.


Päihdelääketiede. Ed. Salaspuro M, Kiianmaa K and Seppä K. Kustannus Oy Duodecim 2003.


Sydän ja alkoholi. Finnish Heart Association.