Christmas is fast approaching, as too is party season for many places of work.

With festive markets and mulled wine stalls springing up in towns and cities up and down the country, the amount of alcohol we consume as a nation at this time of year will inevitably increase.

The month of December is undoubtedly a time for socialising, relaxing and enjoying ourselves after a hard year’s work.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the effects of alcohol on the body are the same as they are during any other month; and that binge drinking in particular can pose an increased risk to heart health.

To discuss this further, we got in touch with Barbara Dinsdale, Lifestyle Manager at Heart Research UK.

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How much is too much?

The term ‘healthy amount’ is a troublesome one when it comes to alcohol, and a subject we’ll touch on in more detail.

But the NHS has compiled a set of ‘lower risk guidelines’ for people to consider when drinking. These are:

  • 2-3 units per day for women with 2 alcohol free days per week (totalling 14 units in a week)
  • 3-4 units per day for men with 2 alcohol free days per week (totalling 21 units in a week)

As Barbara explains: ‘Drinking too much is defined as exceeding these lower risk guidelines on a regular basis.’

Health risks

Frequently exceeding these limits can pose a plethora of health risks.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is one condition which habitual over consumption can lead to.

Hypertension is consistently raised blood pressure (140/90 or above), and is one of the major risk-factors for cardiovascular disease.’ Barbara explains. ‘Drinking alcohol raises blood pressure over time, and so increases the risk of developing hypertension.’

It may surprise some readers to know that calories play a major part in this. In fact, what many people underestimate about alcohol is its calorific content, and its consequent potential to cause obesity, as Barbara illustrates:

Alcohol consists of 7 kcals (referred to as calories) per gram, compared with fat at 9 kcals per gram and carbohydrates which have 3.75 kcals per gram. Consuming these extra calories may lead to weight gain; and when a person is overweight, it places more strain on the heart, which causes raised blood pressure.'

As well as causing hypertension, this strain also takes its toll on the heart muscle itself.

When the heart has to work harder to pump the blood around the body, it can cause the heart muscle to become stiffer and thicker and to become enlarged.’ Barbara tells us. ‘When the heart is enlarged, it is unable to do it’s job as effectively, and may lead to heart failure.’

Furthermore, drinking alcohol to excess can also over time weaken the heart muscle, leading to cardiomyopathy; another condition which causes the heart to fail.

Raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels are also a cause for concern for those who regularly drink outside recommended limits.

Having raised blood triglycerides is associated with coronary heart disease.’ Barbara explains. ‘And when there is too much LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the bloodstream, it can stick to the artery walls and cause them to become narrow and hard. This is called atherosclerosis, and can lead to coronary heart disease.’

Holiday Heart Syndrome

Those who don’t drink through the week, but choose to save their units up for a big night out at the weekend may think they’re better off than those who drink less but on a more regular basis; and this is a consumption habit perhaps seen more at Christmas than at any other time of year.

However, spending all your weekly units in one night is by no means a healthier practice, as Barbara tells us:

Binge drinking does pose a more serious threat than drinking smaller amounts regularly.’

It may lead to ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’ which was first reported in the 1970s and was so named due to it being more common after weekends or public holidays. It was discovered that binge drinking can lead to arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat. This can cause blood pressure changes, and increases the risk of heart attack, or sudden death.

This translates into a stark outlook for those who make a habit of big weekends, as Barbara goes on to illustrate:

Other studies have found that people who binge drink are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack, or die from coronary heart disease than those who drink regularly.’

Are there healthier options?

It’s a testament to the enormity of alcohol in our national culture that even those who are making a concerted effort to look after their health and stay fit will, in many cases, like to let their hair down at Christmas and enjoy a tipple.

As a result, the question of which alcoholic option is healthier is perhaps one which has come to be asked more frequently in recent years, the more health conscious we have become.

The ethanol (or pure alcohol) in any drink is the same, and will have the same effect.’ Barbara explains. ‘However, different drinks have different additional ingredients which may have an effect. For example, some alcoholic beverages contain more calories than others, which may lead to increased weight gain and affect the heart.

As a point of reference, a pint of beer contains roughly the same amount of calories as a packet of crisps, and a regular glass of wine the same as a small chocolate bar, according to the NHS.

But what you mix alcohol with makes a vital difference too, potentially making spirits even more troublesome:

Alcoholic drinks served with caffeinated energy drinks could lead to high blood pressure according to evidence and may put people at increased of cardiovascular illness.

Evidence also shows that people who drink spirits are more likely to have hypertension, though this may be due to the fact that those who drink spirits drink more.

The red wine debate

We’ve all heard the adage that red wine is good for you. But as Barbara tells us, this doesn’t necessarily make it a ‘safe’ option to drink to excess. In fact, the jury is still out on whether there is any truth to this theory when red wine is consumed in strict moderation:

This topic is still hotly contested by experts.’

Some research states that when alcohol is consumed within safe limits, the ethanol itself may increase the amount of HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol in the blood stream and therefore have a protective effect against heart disease. If this is the case, then any alcohol will have the beneficial effect, and not just red wine.’

Other studies show that red wine does have a cardioprotective effect, when consumed within the lower risk limits due to the polyphenols and the antioxidants in the grape.’

Whatever your choice of drink, Barbara stresses the cruciality of moderation.

Any protective effect which may be present only exists when alcohol is consumed within the lower risk limits. The evidence also suggests that any cardioprotective effect is only present in men over 40 and women who have gone through the menopause.’

Responsible drinking

While the health risks associated with excessive use are certainly there, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a drop of alcohol over the festive period. Just remember to keep your consumption with sensible limits.

Barbara offers the following advice:

  • Stay aware and in control of your drinking. Work out the units in your regular tipple and keep an eye on them. There are brilliant resources on the internet for calculating units and calories. Try www.drinkaware.co.uk
  • ‘While you are drinking, avoid having anything served with energy drinks.’
  • ‘Try making every other round a soft drink, which will help you remain hydrated.’

Furthermore, it’s important to note that while it is a huge part of festive culture, alcohol is not the be-all-and-end-all of a healthy social life. There are plenty of non-alcoholic options for those looking to socialise with friends and family.

If you’re looking to reduce your alcohol consumption, try suggesting an alcohol-free day out, such as ice-skating or a walk in the park.’

More information on the work Heart Research UK do, along with helpful advice on this and a range of other heart-related subjects, can be found on their website.