Heart Failure and Alcohol

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two pints of beer in pub

As many as 6.5 million adults in the United States have a serious health condition called heart failure. Heart failure doesn’t mean your heart stops beating, but it does mean your heart is having trouble pumping enough blood around your body to supply oxygen to all your organs. And heart failure has been on the rise, as the population ages.

If you’re at risk for developing heart failure because you have a condition like high blood pressure or diabetes or something else that may have weakened your heart, or if you’ve already been diagnosed, you may have some questions about living with heart failure. For example, can you drink alcohol if you have heart failure? Learn the facts before you raise a glass.

Alcohol’s Effect on Your Heart

It’s important to understand the effect of alcohol on your heart. You’ve probably heard the exhortation to drink red wine because “it’s good for your heart!” There is some truth to that–notably, the grape skin is a source of flavonoids and antioxidants that can protect your heart and blood vessels from free radical molecules, which can cause damage. However, it’s not that simple. For one thing, experts caution people to stick to moderate levels of consumption only. By “moderate,” they mean one alcoholic drink per day for women and two for men. In other words, binge drinking or heavy drinking is out.

Why is moderation in alcohol consumption so crucial? Alcohol certainly can affect your heart–but not always in a good way. Muscle cell damage caused by alcohol abuse can weaken your heart, causing a condition called cardiomyopathy. Essentially, heart muscle functioning becomes inefficient, which can lead to heart failure. It can actually cause structural changes to the heart and eventually even lead to the need for a heart transplant. Excessive drinking can also raise your risk for other serious health conditions that may tax your heart, too.

About That Drink…

If you’re one of the 6.5 million adults affected by heart failure in the United States, you may be wondering: can I still go out for a beer with my friends or a raise a glass of champagne during the toast at a wedding? Can I drink with heart failure?

The short answer is “it depends.” Until very recently, doctors typically encouraged people with heart failure to abstain from drinking alcohol altogether. And many still do. But more recently, some research has suggested it’s possible that moderate alcohol consumption by older adults with heart failure might not be such a bad thing. The reasoning is that it might actually help your heart. You might reap some benefits like increases in your high-density lipoprotein (HDL), nicknamed the “good cholesterol” because it takes cholesterol from around your body back to your liver, which removes it from your body.

However, this recent development doesn’t mean you should take up drinking if you currently abstain. If you have heart failure, you may want to discuss safe alcohol intake with your doctor before you pour yourself a glass or crack open a bottle.

If you have cardiomyopathy, especially the kind that’s driven by alcohol use, it’s definitely time to step back and evaluate your choices. If you stop drinking alcohol, you may be able to recover some of your cardiac function. That could be a big incentive for switching to non-alcoholic beer or iced tea.

Consult Your Healthcare Team

It’s worth reiterating the importance of communicating with your cardiologist or primary care physician about your alcohol use. Be honest about how much alcohol you actually consume. Your doctor needs to know this kind of information to be able to give you an informed opinion about your choices and any changes to your healthcare treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Feb 22
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