When it comes to cholesterol, drinking alcohol is a matter of balance. On the one hand, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to improve "good" cholesterol levels and have been linked with reduced incidence of heart disease. On the other hand, drinking too much alcohol can have a negative effect on blood lipid profiles and ultimately, on heart health.
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Studies in the "New England Journal of Medicine," the journal "Circulation" and in the journal "Alcohol" documented that moderate amounts of alcohol can raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, otherwise known as "good" cholesterol. Scientists refer to HDL as good cholesterol because it carries cholesterol away from the tissues and blood vessels and into the liver, and may slow the build-up of arterial plaque that is a hallmark of hardened arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis increases the risk of a heart attack. Based on current evidence, it is suspected that if moderate alcohol drinking raises HDL, then it may decrease the risk of a heart attack.
"Bad" cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein carries cholesterol from the liver to the tissues and blood vessels. High levels of LDL are linked to arterial plaque build-up and therefore, to an increased risk of heart disease. The connection between alcohol consumption and LDL cholesterol is less clear. One scientific study published in 2001 in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" explained that drinking may lower LDL, but that genetic factors may also contribute to the way that alcohol consumption affects LDL levels.
However, although light to moderate alcohol consumption is linked to improved HDL levels, excessive alcohol consumption, especially when alcohol is drunk with a fat-containing meal, raises levels of another blood lipid known as triglycerides. Increased blood triglycerides can negatively affect the health of the circulatory system.
Drinking in Moderation
To avoid tipping the alcohol scale too far in a harmful direction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that only moderate amounts of alcohol are consumed. This amounts to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink is equivalent to 5 ounces of wine, a 12 ounce beer, or a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor.