There are several factors that can affect a person's risk for heart disease. Some, like heredity, cannot be controlled. Others, such as alcohol consumption, can be controlled. But the relationship between alcohol and heart disease is more complicated than you might think.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Heart Disease
Some studies show that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce coronary heart disease. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, studies have found that coronary heart disease occurs less commonly in people who drink alcohol than those who do not. One study found that men who consumed 5.1 to 30 grams of alcohol — roughly 0.3 to two standard drinks — per day had a 29 percent lower risk of suffering fatal heart disease or a nonfatal heart attack than those who did not drink. A standard drink has .6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is roughly equivalent to five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, eight ounces of malt liquor, or 1.5 ounces (a shot) of 80-proof distilled liquor.
However, it's important to note that studies like these are observational, meaning they can't prove cause and effect. In other words, we can't say for certain that drinking alcohol reduces heart disease, but we can say that there's an association between alcohol and heart disease.
Some studies have also shown that red wine is good for the heart, but the research can be misleading. While there are substances in red wine that do reduce the risk of heart disease, these substances are found in other foods as well. Polyphenols, for example, are found in red and purple grape skins, which is what gives red wine its color. However, polyphenols are also found in dark chocolate, coffee, blueberries, and cinnamon, so there are plenty of nonalcoholic sources for these heart-helping antioxidants.
The Mediterranean Diet and Heart Disease
The Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to lower stroke risk, features a low to moderate amount of wine — about one glass per day. However, red wine is only an optional part of the Mediterranean diet, which also consists of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, seafood, whole grain bread, and extra virgin olive oil.
Heart disease occurrence and mortality rates are lower in Mediterranean countries than in the United States, but this can't be exclusively attributed to diet. There are lifestyle factors that affect heart disease risk as well, including more physical activity and extended social support systems, according to the Amerian Heart Association (AHA). The AHA notes that more research is needed to determine whether it is the Mediterranean diet or these other lifestyle factors that account for the lower death rates in those countries.
Heavy Alcohol Consumption and Heart Disease
There is, however, a negative link between alcohol and heart disease as well. Heavy alcohol consumption increases a person's risk of hypertension — also known as high blood pressure — which is a strong risk factor for heart disease. Heavy alcohol use can also lead to other heart problems, such as heart failure and irregular heartbeats. The AHA recommends limiting alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
The relationship between alcohol and heart disease is complicated and, at times, controversial. But one thing's for sure: if you do drink, it's important to do so in moderation.