As it turns out, there are worse things you could do for your heart than have a glass of wine with dinner or enjoy an occasional cocktail—things like smoking, being inactive and eating a diet rich in saturated fats.
In fact, researchers conducting the Physicians Health Study—the largest study to examine alcohol consumption and sudden cardiac death in men—concluded that the risk of sudden cardiac death was reduced by 60 percent in men who drank two to four drinks a week and 79 percent in men who consumed five to six drinks a week. Other studies have uncovered similar results in women.
About half of the protective effects of alcohol come from its ability to raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Alcohol also makes blood clots less likely to form and breaks them up more easily.
Although several studies have proven alcohol’s preventive effect on heart disease, they have limited the benefits to those who drink in moderation—one or two alcoholic beverages a day. Anything more than that can raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack or stroke and damage the heart muscle. For women, having more than two drinks a day can raise breast cancer risk. Scientists also agree that binge drinking—consuming a large amount of alcohol during a short period of time—is never advisable.
The fact that alcohol can lower a person’s risk of heart disease doesn’t mean that people who don’t drink should start. Some people, like those with liver disease, congestive heart failure or uncontrolled high blood pressure, or those taking certain medications, should never drink. However, for most people, having one or two drinks a day is considered safe by the American Heart Association. Talk to your doctor to determine your personal alcohol limit.