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What Alcohol does to your Heart Health

Whether you like an occasional glass of wine after work or you're a regular in the pub for a couple of pints with your friends at the weekend. Alcohol is a large part of social culture in the UK, so lots of people will find that they drink a lot more than the recommend weekly alcohol guidelines.

Although it may not seem more of a problem than a hangover the next day, too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure, increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, and add lots of hidden calories into your diet. Which all contribute to increasing your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.

So, in this week's educational blog, we're talking about alcohol and what it does to your heart health. We've also got lots of practical tips and tricks from the clinical experts at the BHF to help you make simple swaps to cut back on your alcohol intake and reap the benefits on your heart.

We've teamed up with the British Heart Foundation to get more people talking about heart health. Every week, around a quarter of adults in the UK go over national guidelines for alcohol intake. A healthy diet and being physically active are key elements of a heart healthy lifestyle but, if you drink alcohol, keeping your alcohol intake to within recommended limits is another important part of this.

Over time, drinking too much alcohol raises your blood pressure. High blood pressure makes your arteries less stretchy and damages their walls. This makes it easier for fatty material to build up, slowing down the flow of oxygen rich blood. This can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.  Alcohol is also linked to other health problems like vascular dementia and type 2 diabetes, so it's important to keep within the recommended alcohol guidelines.

What are the benefits of drinking less?

Alcohol can be very dehydrating and cause hangovers, unstable blood sugar and weight gain.

We spoke to BHF cardiac nurses who regularly talk to patients about lifestyle change. They told us that after people drink less or cut out alcohol completely, they often:

  • feel better in the mornings
  • remember things more easily
  • are less tired with more energy
  • look better
  • get lower blood pressure readings
  • see an improvement in heart or health condition symptoms
  • get unwell less (colds and flu etc)
  • see a drop in cholesterol levels
  • lose weight
  • sleep better

How much alcohol can I drink without overdoing it?

BHF dietitian Victoria Taylor tells us "as little alcohol as possible or just an occasional cocktail, beer or glass of wine is always going to be what we should aim for." Most people don't drink every day. She tells us "but for people that do, it's important to have a few days off each week. It's also important not to think that by not drinking in the week it's ok to then drink a lot at the weekend. Drinking large amounts in one go can cause additional damage to your body."

14 units a week is the most we should be drinking according to government guidelines. It's the same for men and women. Going over this puts you at risk of heart and circulatory diseases as well as liver damage, brain diseases and other serious illnesses.

Binge drinking is when you drink a large amount in a short space of time. Saving your 14 weekly units for a big night isn't any better for your health. For both men and women in the UK, a drinking session usually counts as a binge if you have more than 6 units in one session -- that's two large (250ml) glasses of wine.

What does 14 units look like?

14 units equal about 8 x 350ml bottles of beer (5% ABV) or 4.5 large glasses of wine (250ml of 12% ABV). Units are based on the size and strength of a drink, so this does vary.

You'll usually see %ABV on alcohol labels. This tells you how strong the drink is. The higher the % ABV is, the less you should have. It's worth knowing how many units are in your favourite drinks so you can stay within your limit.

How can I be more alcohol savvy?

Depending on what you drink, you may also need to think not only about the amount of alcohol in your glass, but also about the sugar.

Look for lower calorie options of your favourite drinks -- especially the mixers. Diet fizzy drinks, slimline tonic and soda water are all good options instead of sugary soft drinks and juices.

There are also some simple ways cut down on the amount that you drink. Try one of our tips next time you're drinking:

  • Avoid energy drinks as they're packed with sugar and other unhealthy additives
  • Instead of sugary cocktails, opt for a lower sugar mixer with a single spirit such as vodka, soda, and lime
  • When it comes to wines and ciders, ask for 'dry' instead of 'sweet' as these will be lower in sugar
  • Have a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks -- sparkling and still and are a great way to stay hydrated and cut back on the total amount of alcohol you drink
  • Try alcohol-free or reduced alcohol alternatives to your favourite drinks
  • Opt for a smaller measure of alcohol, such as a small glass of wine rather than a large or a bottle of beer rather than a pint
  • Set yourself a limit before you drink so you don't get carried away or lose count
  • If you drink too much in one session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours to allow your body time to recover

Alcohol and outside influences

If you're used to being in an environment where people drink a lot, or you sometimes drink to cope with stress, cutting down can seem challenging.

Stress, depression, pressured lifestyles and even boredom are common reasons why people might drink more than they want to. If you think any of these reasons are making you drink more than is good for you, it's a good idea to take some steps to cut down or reach out for support if you need.

Next time you feel like turning to alcohol because of something happening in your life, try one of these instead:

  • Go for a 30-minute walk and listen to your favourite music
  • Treat yourself to something small like a magazine or healthy treat
  • Take up an active hobby or exercise class where you can meet others
  • Arrange a chat with friends or family to talk about it
  • Take 10 minutes out to meditate.

Remember to be clear with friends and family when you're limiting your drinking. The hardest bit is saying no and then it becomes easier when people get used to it. They might even feel inspired and drink less too.

Want to learn more?

Interested in finding out more about nutrition and alcohol? Visit the British Heart Foundation's award-winning Heart Matters magazine online nutrition hub.

Not part of the healthy hearts programme yet? Our 8-week guide is designed by the fitness experts and PureGym and the clinical experts at the BHF to bring you a programme packed with follow along workouts, healthy recipes, and heaps more educational content to help you look after your heart health.