Some advice for improving your health is very straightforward. For example, you should drink plenty of water each day and get regular exercise that’s appropriate for your fitness level and goals. There’s no ambiguity there.
Other advice is more nuanced. A good example is the recommendation to drink wine or other alcohol to improve your heart health. Consuming wine can help raise your level of “good” cholesterol. That’s true. But it’s important to recognize all the ways that drinking alcohol affects your health.
Understanding “Bad” and “Good” Cholesterol
It’s widely believed that the goal with cholesterol is simply to lower it, but that’s not entirely true. While it’s recommended that you keep your total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL, there are two components of cholesterol to consider: LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein).
LDL is “bad” cholesterol, and you should try to keep that number below 100 mg/dL. But HDL is “good” cholesterol, and you want to raise it if it’s below 60 mg/dL and maintain it above that level.
Alcohol can help you increase your HDL level, with red wine being particularly helpful. Plus, it contains antioxidants called polyphenols that may help protect the lining of blood vessels in the heart. One polyphenol that may be especially helpful is resveratrol.
But here’s where the nuance comes in: Doctors generally don’t recommend that people start drinking red wine, given that there are several risks associated with alcohol consumption (see below). However, if you’re already enjoying a glass of red wine with your dinner, continuing to do so may help your heart health.
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Health Risks from Alcohol
It appears that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have a lower risk of heart disease. However, the key there is “moderate amounts.” This means one drink for women and two drinks for men daily, with a “drink” being 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
The problem is that alcohol is an addictive substance, and people who start drinking with heart health in mind may quickly find themselves consuming excessive amounts of it. If that occurs, their risk of several kinds of health problems increases. For example, drinking too much alcohol elevates the risk of high blood pressure and stroke, and it can also increase the level of unhealthy triglycerides in the blood.
Excessive alcohol consumption also raises your risk of certain types of cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Plus, it increases your risk of many types of accidents, including car accidents. Plus, alcohol is high in calories, so drinking too much of it can cause you to gain weight, which increases your risk for other diseases like diabetes.
All Things in Moderation
Ultimately, the advice to enjoy “all things in moderation” is spot-on when it comes to alcohol. A small amount may be good for you, but as the quantity you consume goes up, so do your health risks. And if the choice comes down to drinking too much or not drinking at all, it’s much better to avoid alcohol altogether.
If you have questions about alcohol and heart health, your Baptist Health doctor is happy to answer them. To find a provider, search our online directory.
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