Alcohol and heart health

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People who drink moderately are at a lower risk for certain cardiovascular diseases. But caution is advised, for, while studies demonstrating a positive association do their best to control for other variables, some lifestyle habits may well separate moderate drinkers from other categories of drinkers. That is the conclusion of “Alcohol and Heart Health,” the latest publication in Éduc’alcool’s Alcohol and Health series.

Among the findings:

  • Moderate drinking is associated with better cardiovascular health, particularly when it comes to ischemic heart disease.
  • Alcohol appears to act on the molecules and enzymes that strengthen the heart muscle, clean out the arteries and prevent blood clots.
  • The positive effects are generally seen among people who drink regularly and moderately, but not every day.
  • Because it seems to be less toxic than other alcoholic beverages, red wine might have a particular role in reducing the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases. But that difference could be related to other factors, rather than the wine itself.

“Despite these findings, people who do not drink alcohol should not start drinking in the only hopes of improving their cardiovascular health because alcohol is also associated with a number of diseases, and there are other ways to improve your health, such as exercising more regularly, eating better and quitting smoking,” said Hubert Sacy, Director General of Éduc’alcool.

The new publication was reviewed by Dr. Martin Juneau, Director of Professional, Prevention and Cardiac Rehabilitation Services at the Montreal Heart Institute and clinical professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Université de Montréal.

Helpful and harmful effects

“Alcohol and Heart Health” reviews the research on the subject and summarizes both the helpful, protective effects of alcohol, and its harmful impact on cardiovascular health. For example, compared to people who never drink, those who have no more than 4.5 standard drinks a day have shown a marked reduction in death from cardiovascular disease, as well as a reduced risk for incident coronary heart disease. Better yet, among those who have no more than 1.1 drinks a day, the risk of cardiovascular disease is reduced by 14% to 25%.

Drinking regularity is an important factor noted by a significant number of the studies reviewed. In fact, the risk for moderate, regular drinkers of developing a cardiac disease is lower than for lifetime abstainers, former drinkers, and moderate, irregular drinkers. It is important to remember that regular drinking does not mean drinking every day; generally speaking, it means drinking the same moderate amounts of alcohol over time. How much and how regularly people drink also determines the difference between the protective and harmful effects of alcohol in two other areas, as well.

Despite the benefits of regular, responsible drinking, alcohol can still have an adverse impact on cardiovascular health. Excessive drinking over at least five years can cause arterial stiffness, for example. The arteries lose their ability to expand and contract in response to changes in blood pressure, placing undue pressure on the heart muscle.

So is it better to drink, or not to drink?

The subject of alcohol and its impact on heart health continues to make headlines and spark passionate debate. Studies contradict each other and cast doubt on findings on both sides, creating a controversy that remains unresolved. In any case, Éduc’alcool believes it is important to provide the people of Quebec with all the information currently available. Furthermore, we want to do so in a manner both calm and credible, remembering at all times that, even in science, absolute certainty is exceedingly rare, and there is no such thing as incontestable opinion.

“In light of our review, we believe that people who drink alcohol—and that means 83% of Quebecers—would do well to drink small amounts more regularly, rather than large amounts occasionally. Éduc’alcool advises sticking to the recommended daily and weekly limits, and not drinking at all one day a week, preferably two. Once again, in this matter as with others, moderation is always in good taste,” said Hubert Sacy.

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