Consuming alcohol in small quantities may have its benefits, but larger quantities consumed over a long period of time could do more harm. By Michael Lim

MANY hold a common belief that drinking red wine is beneficial for your heart. Before you rush off to stock up on red wine, you may want to hold onto your wallet and pause a while to understand more. Alcohol in small quantities may have potentially beneficial effects but intake of moderate to large quantities of alcohol over a long period of time can have many unwanted consequences.

Alcohol can increase ‘good’ cholesterol

The good news is that alcohol consumption is associated with an increase in the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. You may be surprised that one to two glasses of alcoholic drinks per day can increase “good” cholesterol by 12 per cent on the average. Many may also be surprised that this increase in “good” cholesterol is similar to that achieved with exercise.

In case you get the wrong notion that this is the easiest way to increase HDL, consumption of Vitamin B3, niacin, is far superior. While the impact of increasing “good” cholesterol on the heart with alcohol consumption is less certain, the beneficial effect of treating low HDL with cholesterol lowering drugs, statins, on the heart has been proven in many clinical trials.

Alcohol can ‘thin’ your blood

Another apparent beneficial effect of light to moderate consumption of alcohol of up to 60 ml per day is the ability of alcohol consumption to reduce the stickiness of platelets by a mechanism similar to that of aspirin.

Some studies attribute it to the direct effect of alcohol on platelets whereas other studies suggest that certain chemicals such as resveratrol and other polyphenolic compounds found in red wine may have an additional effect on reducing the stickiness of platelets. This may theoretically reduce the likelihood of sudden clot formation blocking the lumen of the heart artery and thereby potentially reduce the likelihood of a heart attack.

There are also some reports that suggest that alcohol or resveratrol may reduce the levels of a protein, fibrinogen, that is required for blood clot formation.

Before you get excited about these findings and want to consider drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages on a regular basis to reduce your risk of getting a heart attack, you should be aware that there is currently no study that has shown that consumption of alcohol can reduce heart attacks.

Beer bellies

We often associate beer drinking with big bellies. This is not surprising since alcohol is a source of carbohydrate and hence consumption of any alcohol leads to an increase in the “fat” or triglcerides in the blood. The consumption of carbohydrates is associated with an increase in triglcerides as the excess sugars are converted to “fat”.

One of the dreaded complications of excessive alcohol consumption in a person who has high blood triglcerides, is the development of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). The pancreas is an organ that controls the sugar level by the production of insulin and it also produces several protein called enzymes that can digest ingested food and break the food down into components that can be absorbed.

Pancreatitis can cause the enzymes to leak out to the surrounding tissues in the body and these enzymes can cause the breakdown of these tissues.

Dangers of alcohol

While you may try to reason with yourself that given the beneficial effects of alcohol consumption, alcohol intake should be encouraged, you should take heed of the adverse consequences of alcohol consumption, even if it is only in moderate amounts.

Long term intake of three alcoholic drinks per day is sufficient to increase your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, damage to the heart, abnormal heart rhythms and sudden death.

There are more than 60 published studies that have demonstrated that alcohol consumption is directly associated with high blood pressure for both men and women of different ages and races. Long term heavy alcohol intake also increases an individual’s risk for all types of stroke, especially those that are associated with bleeding in the brain.

Excessive chronic alcohol intake can also cause the heart to be swollen and the heart function to deteriorate. This can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and even sudden death.

To drink or not to drink wine

There is data to show that intake of one to two alcoholic drinks per day is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in populations. While the studies show an association, there are presently no studies to show that alcohol consumption can directly reduce heart disease.

At this point in time, there is really no strong evidence to show that wine is significantly superior to other alcoholic drinks. Even if the compounds present in wine have additional beneficial effects beyond the direct effect of alcohol, it seems that these same effects can be achieved by taking grape juice.

Given its potentially addictive nature and its possible adverse effects, alcohol intake is generally not recommended as a strategy to prevent heart disease. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology caution that consumption of no more than one glass of alcohol per day is appropriate for women. For women, there is also concern that excessive alcohol intake may be associated with increased breast cancer risk.

Finally, alcohol intake must never be recommended as a preventive measure for teenagers or young adults. Road traffic accidents, trauma, and suicide are leading causes of death in this age group, and alcohol intake can potentially increase the likelihood of these events.

Therefore, before you start sipping that glass of wine in the hope that it will prevent you from getting heart disease, you may want to discuss this with your physician. If preventing heart disease is your main motivation for drinking alcohol, there are many other safer and clinically proven options. So do not use your heart as an excuse for drinking.