Here’s What Happens to Your Heart Health When You Cut Back on Alcohol

Photo: Getty Images/Liliya Krueger
Excessive alcohol consumption can negatively impact our health in several ways, including our cardiovascular system. This has brought about a new wave of folks thinking about cutting back on their drinking as they consider how alcohol impacts heart health and their body in general. Think: Damp January.

Unsurprisingly, reducing the amount of alcohol we consume can result in serious health benefits, especially when it comes to heart health. Let’s dive into what happens to our tickers when we go a little lighter on the booze, plus ways to put that intention into action.

How alcohol impacts heart health

“Consuming too much alcohol can negatively impact mental and physical health both on a short-term and long-term basis, including disrupted sleep, brain fog, poor mood, gastrointestinal issues, impaired cognitive function, liver disease, and more,” explains Amy Davis, RDN at FRESH Communications. Long-term excessive alcohol consumption can also contribute to diseases of the pancreas and even cancer.

Experts In This Article

And then, of course, alcohol can significantly impact heart health. “Drinking alcohol can temporarily increase your heart rate, which can lead to tachycardia, or an abnormally fast heart rate, putting you at risk for major cardiac events such as heart failure or stroke,” says Davis. And while certain alcohol choices, like red wine, contain the heart-healthy plant compound resveratrol, the alcohol it contains often outweighs these benefits.

“Alcohol is also commonly associated with high blood pressure since alcohol triggers the body to release a hormone called renin, which causes blood vessels to constrict,” Davis explains. And, a 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that alcohol consumption increased the risk of cardiovascular disease1.

All of these effects have so much evidence behind them that in January 2023 the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed no amount of alcohol to be safe for our overall health. Should cutting out drinking completely for the rest of your days seem unrealistic and not much fun, know that other studies have shown that moderate drinking likely has minimal impacts2 when it comes to negative cardiac health events, and Davis says research suggests moderate drinking does not significantly impact health, and in certain cases may even have a health benefit.

What is moderate drinking?

“While the optimal amount of alcohol to drink for heart health is none, moderate drinking of up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men should not negatively impact heart health,” says Davis. However, some health-care professionals recommend an even more moderate approach of just a few (three or four maximum) drinks per week.

What's more, moderating your booze intake can result in some serious heart health benefits. “When cutting back on alcohol, one would likely experience lowered blood pressure, a regular heartbeat, lowered stress, less anxiety, better sleep, lowered inflammation, and an overall lowered risk of heart disease,” Davis says.

Drinking in a health-supportive way

Thankfully, there are so many easy (and delicious) ways to go about moderating your alcohol consumption, both through smarter alcohol choices and creative swaps.

Choose nutrient-added drinks

If you’re going to enjoy a happy hour drink with friends, you can help mitigate some of its health impacts by opting for a nutrient-added choice. “Red wine contains antioxidants, like resveratrol, that have been linked to lower levels of HDL cholesterol, making it the optimal alcohol choice for heart health,” says Davis.

Healthier mixers also come into play here. Instead of sodas or sweetened juices, opt for freshly squeezed, no added sugar juices, vegetable juices (Bloody Mary, anyone?), or sugar-free sparkling waters. Also, many mixologists are now experimenting with trendy health food ingredients like spirulina and activated charcoal, both of which help to reduce inflammation and are great choices as well. If you’re whipping up a drink at home and would like to add some sweetener, try more nutrient-dense options like agave or honey over refined sugar.

Be wary of added sugar

Building off that last tip, choosing boozy drinks laden with added sugar only adds insult to injury when it comes to heart health. This is because added, refined sugar is a major pro-inflammatory agent in the body and has been linked to negative heart health outcomes3. While sweet mixers are the biggest culprits of added sugars in alcoholic drinks, beware of other sneaky sources like simple syrups.

Dilute, dilute, dilute

If you’re hoping to have more than one drink in a sitting, dilution is a great way to get more bang for your buck without the added toll on your heart health. This can look like watering down hard liquor, premixed cocktails, or wine (think spritzers). You can do this with regular old filtered water, seltzer water, or even no-sugar-added flavored sparkling waters.

Explore smart swaps

“For those thinking about cutting back on alcohol, it’s easier to replace alcohol with something else rather than not drinking anything,” says Davis. This can look like “drinking sparkling flavored water from a wine glass,” she suggests, or opting for a delicious mocktail. In a world where more and more people are cutting back on their alcohol consumption for one reason or another, an entire market of zero-proof alcohol has come to fruition. “Trying an alternative, such as Surely Wines or Ritual Zero Proof Spirits, is a great tactic to cut back without feeling deprived,” Davis says. But you don’t even need to search for fancy alcohol-free spirits, delicious mocktails can be made easily at home with 100-percent fruit juice, fresh muddled fruit, and sparkling water.

Center your gatherings around other activities

Shifting the focus of your social gatherings away from alcohol and toward another activity is another way to potentially cut back on your alcohol consumption. This could look like hosting a game night, cooking a meal together, heading to the movie theater, watching your favorite sports game, or enjoying nature. There are so many ways to connect with your loved ones that require no alcohol whatsoever.

So while we know that cutting back on our alcohol intake can result in major overall and heart health gains, that doesn’t mean that this popular social lubricant is off the table altogether. Rather, through intentional choices and innovative swaps, you can both enjoy alcohol and maintain optimal heart health.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Biddinger, K. J., Emdin, C. A., Haas, M. E., et al. “Association of Habitual Alcohol Intake With Risk of Cardiovascular Disease.” JAMA Network Open, vol. 5, no. 3, 2022, e223849. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.3849.
  2. Krittanawong, Chayakrit et al. “Alcohol Consumption and Cardiovascular Health.” The American journal of medicine vol. 135,10 (2022): 1213-1230.e3. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2022.04.021
  3. DiNicolantonio, James J et al. “The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease.” Progress in cardiovascular diseases vol. 58,5 (2016): 464-72. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2015.11.006

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