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Alcohol and your heart: What you should know

Over the past several years we’ve heard a lot about the heart-healthy benefits of alcohol, but that doesn’t mean a green light when it comes to overindulging in beer, wine and spirits. Moderation is still key where alcohol is concerned – health benefits or not. In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month, we’re taking a closer look at the safest way to raise a glass to your health.

Woman drinking red wine

To imbibe or not to imbibe?

Just because something is purported to be good for you doesn’t mean you get free rein to consume as much as you like. We now know chocolate has health benefits – but eating an armload of candy bars isn’t the best way to interpret that information. When it comes to alcohol, things get even more confusing – haven’t we always been told alcohol isn’t the most health-conscious beverage choice?

Alcohol and heart health

Dr. Geraldo A Ramos, cardiologist at Bradenton Cardiology Center in Florida, wants to help people understand the relationship between alcohol and heart health. He explains that the possible heart benefits of alcohol primarily have to do with its affect on something called atherosclerosis – a condition that occurs when cholesterol deposits build up in the arteries, potentially leading to a heart attack. Alcohol — in moderation — may decrease the chances of developing this disease.

Cholesterol and your heart

There are two kinds of cholesterol that affect your heart – one (HDL) is helpful, while the other (LDL) causes all kinds of problems. Having too much LDL and too little HDL can lead to buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries – which can cause clots, heart disease and eventually can lead to a heart attack. High levels of HDL can prevent these buildups, and small amounts of alcohol have been shown to increase HDL (good) cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, this is because alcohol may cause HDL proteins to travel more quickly through the bloodstream, increasing HDL levels and thereby improving heart health.

The healthiest drink: Wine

Red wine is the beverage most often associated with heart health – mostly due to an ingredient called resveratrol, an antioxidant that helps protect the lining of the heart’s blood vessels and comes from the grape skins used to make the wine. New research suggests the pulp of the grapes used can be just as heart-healthy as the skin, meaning white wine drinkers don’t have to feel left out, and can also reap the benefits.

Beer may fight heart disease

If you prefer beer, some studies suggest the folate in beer may help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, and when it comes to hard liquor, a French study found that it can also help reduce bad cholesterol, though not as much as red wine.

Grapes for heart health

You can also get the same antioxidant benefits from fresh grapes or grape juice – meaning wine isn’t your only heart-healthy option.

Raise a glass – but only in moderation

Despite wine’s well-documented health benefits, overindulging can have a negative effect. Unlike things like kale or broccoli, consuming more doesn’t increase the health benefits; rather, too much alcohol is associated with a variety of health problems. Moderation is key and any healthy dose of alcohol will be a small one. According to the American Heart Association, moderate drinking for healthy men means no more than two glasses per day, and for healthy women, no more than one glass a day.

One approved serving of alcohol consists of the following:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 4 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor
  • 1 ounce of 100-proof liquor

Look beyond the bottle for a healthy heart

If you’re unsure how much (if any) alcohol is safe for you, Dr. Ramos recommends consulting with your doctor before imbibing. And remember that pouring a glass of wine (though enjoyable) isn’t the only heart-healthy choice you can make. Many other lifestyle changes have proven to be more beneficial, especially exercising every day and eating a low-fat, low-sodium diet. We’ll drink to that!

More on alcohol and health

A connection between body mass index (BMI) and alcohol
Drinking even a little can increase a woman’s risk of cancer
Signs that you are – or are not – an alcoholic

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