Alcohol is one of the most common recreational substances in the world. In the United States, more than 80% of people over age 18 have had alcohol at least once in their lives. Since alcohol use is so common and universal, it’s effects on public health need to be well-understood. Alcohol use is one thing, but alcohol misuse can have an even more potent effect on your health.
Alcohol misuse can affect your health in many ways, causing both short- and long-term complications. As a substance that affects your central nervous system, alcohol can have an impact on certain automatic functions like your blood pressure. But how does it change your blood pressure, and can it cause problems like hypertension?
Learn more about how alcohol can affect your heart health.
Alcohol does affect your blood pressure, but it does so in a way that’s different from certain foods that can increase your blood pressure. Instead, it works by affecting your brain and body through your nervous system.
Alcohol works by influencing the central nervous system. It’s in a class of drugs called central nervous system depressants, which work to decrease excitability in your brain and body. This is what causes the desired effects of alcohol like anxiety-relief, relaxation, and release of inhibitions. However, your nervous system controls multiple functions in your body, including many unconscious functions. This is what causes some of the side effects of intoxication, like a loss of motor control and slurred speech.
Some functions controlled by your central nervous system are vital for your survival, including your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. That’s why alcohol doesn’t just cause plaque buildup like fatty foods; it actually affects the control center that decides your blood pressure in the first place.
When alcohol raises your blood pressure to an unhealthy level, it’s a condition called alcohol-induced hypertension. In combination with other things that raise your blood pressure, like a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in sugar, salt, and fats, alcohol-induced hypertension can be potentially dangerous. Frequent binge drinking can raise your blood pressure to the point of risking heart disease. High blood pressure can also lead to a stroke, heart attack, kidney disease, peripheral artery disease, and other issues.
You may have heard that some research showed that alcohol, specifically red wine, can actually be good for your heart and lower blood pressure. But how can that be the case if it actually raises blood pressure? It’s true that some studies showed a link between red wine and lowered blood pressure, but those findings are actually debatable.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), those links could be caused by other factors like lifestyle changes. Some of the studies considered people in the Mediterranean, France, and Japan. Each of these groups may have different lifestyles and dietary habits than the average American.
Even if red wine does offer some heart-healthy benefits, it will involve moderated drinking. More than one or two glasses each night may not have the desired effect. Excessive alcohol consumption may raise your blood pressure over time, and you may be better off by increasing your daily physical activity if you’re worried about your blood pressure.
Mixing alcohol with medication can be risky, so it’s always important to check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out if drinking alcohol is OK. Blood pressure medication may be particularly dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Blood pressure medications influence your nervous system, like alcohol does, but in a different way. Combining substances that are working on your nervous system may be risky. They may work against each other to limit the effectiveness of the drug you are taking.
Doctors may steer you away from drinking on blood pressure medications for a different reason. Most blood pressure medications come with the warning that it may cause low blood pressure. This can cause dizziness and lightheadedness, especially when you get up from a standing position. Alcohol can also cause dizziness, and it can limit your motor functions. People who take them both at the same time may increase their risk of fainting or falling, causing an injury. It may also increase your dizziness and lightheadedness with relatively small amounts of alcohol.
The rise in blood pressure after drinking alcohol is usually a temporary condition that goes away when the effects of the alcohol have worn off. If you’ve developed alcohol-related hypertension after chronic alcohol misuse, your blood pressure may take longer to go down.
If you’re dependent on alcohol, it’s important to address your substance use problem to effectively treat hypertension. People who get treatment for alcohol use problems usually see improved hypertension issues through reduced alcohol consumption. According to a 2009 study, alcohol dependence treatment showed to help lower blood pressure in hypertensive people.
If you get treatment for your alcohol use problem but you still have high blood pressure, there are several ways to treat hypertension. High blood pressure is caused by several factors, including your lifestyle, certain foods, and weight. For many, increasing your level of exercise and changing your eating habits is enough to lower blood pressure. Eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while limiting processed foods can positively affect your blood pressure.
However, there is also a genetic component to high blood pressure, which can make it more difficult for you to lower it with diet and exercise. If high blood pressure persists despite lifestyle changes, it’s important to speak to your doctor about how you could manage it more effectively. Again, if you’re prescribed a blood pressure medication, it’s another reason to stay away from excessive drinking.
Excessive drinking has been linked to several long-term health conditions like liver disease, certain cancers, and stomach ulcers. However, it can also threaten heart health in more ways than hypertension. Alcohol is linked to angina, which is heart-related chest pain. It can also cause cardiomyopathy, which is a disorder that affects the heart muscle. This disorder can be potentially dangerous unless it’s effectively treated.
Hypertension can cause heart attacks that damage the heart and lead to long-term heart-related complications. Excessive intoxication can also cause a stroke that damages the brain, leading to long-lasting consequences like limited mobility, speech problems, and other stroke-related conditions.
American Heart Association. (2016, October 31). Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure. from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/limiting-alcohol-to-manage-high-blood-pressure
Husain, K., Ansari, R., & Ferder, L. (2014, May 26). Alcohol-induced hypertension: Mechanism and prevention. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038773/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020, February 18). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
Stewart, S., Latham, P., Miller, P., Randall, P., & Anton, R. (2008, October). Blood pressure reduction during treatment for alcohol dependence: Results from the Combining Medications and Behavioral Interventions for Alcoholism (COMBINE) from from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2634596/