You may have heard that a nightly glass of red wine can benefit your heart. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol may also increase your HDL cholesterol level, the good kind. But at what cost? Ultimately, health experts say, the potential pros may not outweigh the cons.
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Alcohol and Your Heart
Moderate drinking, per American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines, means no more than two 12-ounce beers or 4-ounce glasses of wine a day for men and one a day for women. And, though the AHA acknowledges that, for years, studies have shown a correlation between moderate red wine consumption and improved heart health — specifically a reduced risk of dying from heart disease — it cautions that you should consider the bigger picture before pouring that glass after work.
According to the AHA, no studies have demonstrated a clear cause-and-effect relationship, and it's also unclear whether the reduced risk for heart disease has a direct correlation to red wine consumption or is a result of other factors. For instance, says the AHA, it's possible that if you drink red wine, you are also more likely to subscribe to a heart-healthier lifestyle in general.
Though the AHA notes that modest amounts of beer and other spirits also have been connected to a reduced risk for heart disease, it says that red wine gets the most attention because of its antioxidant content, namely resveratrol. Research has linked this compound, which is present in the skin of grapes, to lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol.
The amount, though, is unclear, notes the AHA — meaning you may need too much wine to reap benefits — and some health professionals are skeptical of resveratrol's true cardio-protective nature. Moreover, "red wine has the benefit of antioxidants, but calories are most important," says Kevin Boblick, MD, an internal medicine physician specializing in cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes at the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois.
"Any alcohol drink starts out at about 100 calories," Dr. Boblick says. "The worst drinks are mixed drinks with lots of added sugar. Current recommendations are to keep added sugars to less than 10 percent of your calories — better yet, keep them to less than 5 percent."
The Cleveland Clinic likewise notes that alcohol provides empty calories — no nutritional value. Just one 105-calorie glass of wine a day, it says, could add 10 pounds in one year. Beyond affecting your weight, says the Mayo Clinic, alcohol's high sugar and calorie content can also have a direct effect on your triglyceride levels.
Balancing the Pros and Cons
Though the AHA notes that studies have established a possible link between moderate alcohol consumption and both increased HDL and reduced risk for diabetes, the association also cautions about the simultaneous risks of imbibing: liver damage, stroke, cancer, negative effects on your heart and obesity.
"The debate about drinking alcohol for its benefits on cholesterol keeps going back and forth," says Dr. Boblick. "Drinking in moderation increases good cholesterol. Drinking too much increases triglycerides and blood pressure, erasing any benefits."
And, according to Harvard Health Publishing, a strong connection exists between good HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels: If your triglyceride level goes up, it tends to force your HDL cholesterol down (and HDL is the type of cholesterol that you want to be higher, not lower). Therefore, Harvard Health explains, too much alcohol can have the opposite effect of moderate consumption.
Cleveland Clinic also warns that, for some people, drinking at all could be dangerous. This includes people with a personal or family history of alcohol abuse, liver disease or pancreatitis, those who have diabetes, an irregular pulse or elevated blood pressure or triglyceride levels as well as anyone who's had a heart attack or stroke.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, despite the possibility that modest wine consumption may have health benefits, moderate drinking might actually be harmful to your health — noting, along with the AHA, increased risk for liver damage, cancer, elevated triglycerides, weight gain, and higher blood pressure.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the AHA does not recommend you start adding wine or alcohol — even in moderation — to your daily diet for better health.
"Because the risks of drinking alcohol can outweigh the benefits, we do not advise starting to drink for heart health," Dr. Boblick says.
- Mayo Clinic: “Top 5 Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Cholesterol”
- American Heart Association: “Drinking Red Wine for Heart Health? Read This Before You Toast”
- Kevin Boblick, MD, internist, Loyola University Medical Center, Maywood, Illinois
- Cleveland Clinic: “Alcohol & Your Heart Health”
- Mayo Clinic: “Triglycerides: Why Do They Matter?”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Should You Worry About High Triglycerides?”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Eat Right and Drink Responsibly”
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