The Effect Drinking Has On Your Heart

If you've been hopping about looking at our mocktail recipes for low or no alcohol healthy drinks after enduring a very dryathon January, you'll be interested to see what the experts at London Bridge Hospital have to say on the no-boozing matter.

Dr Phil Harrison, Consultant Hepatologist, explains the link between alcohol and liver disease, while Dr Gerry Carr-White, Consultant Cardiologist, explains the effect drinking has on the heart.

Contrary to common belief, it’s not only those who get drunk or binge drink that are at risk of harming their health, those who consistently consume more than the recommended units of alcohol, which could be as easy as indulging in a few drinks after a busy day every evening, could in fact be damaging their health far more than they are aware of.

The NHS recommends that men should not drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, while women should drink no more than 2-3 units a day if they are to be classed as ‘low risk drinkers’ – meaning you have a low risk of causing yourself future harm if you drink consistently within these limits.

the effects drinking has on your heart

The other two categories refer to ‘increasing risk drinkers’, those who regularly drink more than the recommended daily units, and ‘higher risk drinkers’ who regularly drink more than 8 units a day, both of which have a correlated higher risk of damaging their health.

Overtime, regularly drinking more than the recommended amount can cause a number of health problems, including liver problems, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. Commenting on the effect of alcohol on the liver, Dr Phil Harrison, Consultant Hepatologist at London Bridge Hospital explains, “Alcohol-related liver disease is a significant health problem in the UK. Over 28 units of alcohol per week is considered a high level of alcohol consumption and if exposed to these escalated amounts, the liver can become injured or seriously damaged.”

Alcohol Related Diseases

Dr Harrison outlines the following main types of alcohol related liver disease:

1.    Fatty Liver Disease - The earliest stage of alcohol related liver damage, which results in the build up of fat in the liver cells. There are usually few symptoms but almost all heavy drinkers have fatty liver disease. However if they stop drinking, the fatty liver goes away before any permanent damage is done.

2.     Alcoholic Hepatitis - This causes the liver to swell ands leads to liver damage. Up to 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, the symptoms of which may include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and jaundice. Alcoholic hepatitis can be severe, causing serious complications including liver failure and death. If alcoholic hepatitis is mild, stopping alcohol reverses the liver damage.

3.    Alcoholic Cirrhosis - Alcoholic cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. While symptoms can be similar to those of alcoholic hepatitis, in many heavy drinkers it develops without any symptoms. Unlike alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic cirrhosis cannot be reversed and can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. Not drinking alcohol can prevent further damage.

While excessive alcohol consumption is widely known to affect the liver, few people are aware of the wider effect alcohol can have on the body as a whole, and in particular the heart.

Dr Gerald Carr-White, Consultant Cardiologist at London Bridge Hospital explains, “Drinking too much alcohol can increase the narrowing of the arteries supplying your heart, which can therefore increase your risk of a heart attack. It also increases your risk of stroke and high blood pressure and can make you more prone to tachyarrythmias (episodes where your heart speeds up). In addition it can increase your risk of diabetes and heart failure.”

Dr Carr-White expands, “A number of mechanisms have been suggested as to how alcohol causes problems to the heart and these include oxidative damage, deposition or triglycerides, altered fatty acid extraction and impaired protein synthesis. While there are still a lot of unanswered questions, the key to maintaining a healthy heart is adopting a long term healthy lifestyle.”

When it comes to tackling these negative health effects, it seems lifestyle is key. Dr Harrison explains, “Treatment for alcohol related liver disease requires a healthy diet that’s low in fat and refined carbohydrates and must include avoiding alcohol. Usually after many years of heavy drinking there may be further complications as a result of the patients liver disease and medications may be needed to manage these.

In advance cases of alcoholic cirrhosis, when an individual has shown that they can stop drinking for at least 6 months, a liver transplant may be needed.”

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