Alcohol & High Blood Pressure: How Does Drinking Affect It?
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Alcohol can negatively impact your blood pressure, increasing your risks of dangerous conditions like strokes and heart attacks.
Alcohol can negatively affect your blood pressure, especially if you drink heavily or binge drink. Elevated blood pressure increases your risk of many dangerous diseases and conditions, making it essential to understand the important link between alcohol and high blood pressure.
What Is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the pressure that blood puts on the wall of your arteries as it is pumped through your body. Blood pressure is given in two measurements: systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure. Systolic blood pressure is your blood pressure at its maximum, as the heart is contracting and pushing blood through your body. Diastolic blood pressure is your blood pressure at its minimum while your heart is resting.
Healthy blood pressure is around 120/80 (written as systolic/diastolic). While low blood pressure is medically dangerous, high blood pressure is far more common. High blood pressure (called hypertension) can, over long periods, create microscopic damage to your arteries. This leads to build-up in your arteries as your body tries to repair the damage. This build-up can block arteries in your heart, lung, brain or other areas of the body. This is one of the primary causes of heart attacks and strokes.
How Alcohol Affects Blood Pressure
Alcohol causes an immediate slight reduction in blood pressure, then increases for several hours afterward. When alcohol is used heavily, the elevated blood pressure it creates is always present, leading to chronic hypertension. Many different systems are involved with how alcohol causes an increase in blood pressure.
The Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System
The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, or RAAS, is a hormonal system that helps regulate blood pressure and blood volume in the body. Alcohol can affect this system in multiple ways.
Alcohol intake initially suppresses the activity of this system by inhibiting the release of renin, a hormone that starts the RAAS process. Lower renin levels can lead to decreased levels of the production of other hormones, potentially lowering blood pressure.
Chronic alcohol use, however, may lead to an overactive RAAS, contributing to high blood pressure (hypertension). The exact mechanisms of how alcohol influences the RAAS are still under research, but medical researchers know that an overactive RAAS can constrict blood vessels, retain sodium and water and alter kidney function, leading to increased blood pressure.
Vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone (ADH), helps the body retain water and constrict blood vessels. In the short term, alcohol inhibits the release of vasopressin. This leads to increased urine production, which can lead to a temporary decrease in blood volume and possibly a reduction in blood pressure.
Long-term heavy drinking, however, might lead to an adaptation of the body, which could mean a return to normal or even elevated vasopressin levels. This would cause water retention and increased blood volume, ultimately increasing blood pressure.
Cortisol is a hormone that plays a role in many bodily functions, including blood pressure regulation. Alcohol stimulates the release of cortisol, causing blood vessels to constrict. As your arteries constrict, the pressure they experience increases, raising blood pressure. High cortisol levels also promote inflammation, which can damage the lining of the arteries and further contribute to both high blood pressure and the complications it can cause.
Baroreceptors are sensors in the blood vessels that detect changes in blood pressure and help the body respond. Heavily drinking can decrease baroreceptor sensitivity making them less responsive to changes in blood pressure. When blood pressure rises, the baroreceptors should trigger the body to lower it, but with reduced sensitivity, this mechanism is impaired. This can contribute to sustained high blood pressure.
Blood Calcium Levels
Calcium is essential for the contraction and dilation of blood vessels, which directly affects blood pressure. Chronic heavy drinking increases calcium levels, making them more sensitive to chemicals that increase blood pressure.
Blood Pressure and Types of Drinking
Your blood pressure will more likely be affected by alcohol, whether heavy or binge drinking if you drink excessively. Heavy drinking is defined as more than one drink a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men. Binge drinking is more than four drinks in two hours for women or more than five in two hours for men. Heavy drinking can lead to chronic, persistent elevations in blood pressure, while binge drinking can lead to unhealthy extremes.
Some people believe drinking alcohol in moderation, particularly red wine, is beneficial for your blood pressure. Continued research, however, shows this is not the case. While there are some possible benefits to some of the components of red wine, the same benefits can be obtained using grape juice. The alcohol wine contains is probably not beneficial, and you shouldn’t begin drinking to improve your health.
Health Benefits of Avoiding Alcohol
There are numerous health benefits to avoiding alcohol, especially heavy alcohol use. Avoiding heavy alcohol use can lower your risk of:
- Heart disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Several types of cancer
- Mental health problems
- Sleep problems
Even if you just use alcohol in moderation, it can get out of hand and lead to addiction eventually. If addiction does develop, it can lead to all the other risks associated with heavy alcohol use.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the definition of a standard drink?
A standard drink is about 14 grams of pure alcohol. The amount of alcohol in any given drink varies; however, it is roughly the equivalent of:
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
The higher the proof of an alcoholic beverage, the less you’ll have to drink to consume a standard drink.
How can I assess my own drinking habits to determine if I have an alcohol problem?
The best way to assess for an alcohol problem is to talk to a doctor who can help you with a more objective assessment. You can also evaluate if you are drinking heavily, defined as more than seven drinks a week for women or more than 14 drinks a week for men.
Ultimately, alcohol addiction is often characterized by an inability to stop drinking, even though you want to or even though alcohol is affecting you negatively. One way to assess if this is a problem is to stop using alcohol for just 48 hours. If this is hard or if you have withdrawal symptoms, it could be an indicator that you have an alcohol problem.
Are there any resources or support groups available for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction?
There are many options available for someone who may have an alcohol addiction! Professional medical detox and rehab is generally the best option. While this can seem unattainable for some, there are many options or programs for making it affordable. For someone who has overcome an alcohol addiction, there are support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous that can help you maintain sobriety.
What are the risks and consequences of untreated alcoholism?
Untreated alcoholism can wreak havoc on your body, lowering your life expectancy by 24–28 years! While alcoholism can take decades off your life, it also lowers the quality of the life you have left, bringing many negative and mental effects that ultimately decrease your quality of life.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2023.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes.” May 18, 2021. Accessed July 5, 2023.
Tasnim, Sara; Tang, Chantel; & et al. “Effect of alcohol on blood pressure.” Cochrane Library. July 1, 2020. Accessed July 5, 2023.
Harper, Kathryn M.; Knapp, Darin J.; & et al. “Vasopressin and alcohol: A multifaceted relationship.” Psychopharmacology. November 3, 2018. Accessed July 5, 2023.
American Heart Association News. “Drinking red wine for heart health? Read this before you toast.” 2023. Accessed July 5, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. ”Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” 2023. Accessed July 5, 2023.