Binge drinking and your heart

What is binge drinking?

Binge drinking is classified as a man having 5 or more alcoholic drinks, and a woman having 4 or more alcoholic drinks, within 2 hours. Alternatively, it is drinking that brings blood alcoholic concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g% or above*.

What are the effects on your heart?

+ You gain weight, increasing your cardiovascular disease risk

The calorie content of alcohol greatly varies but some common examples include:

  • 124kcal in a 175ml glass of 12% red wine
  • 160kcal in a 160ml glass of 13% white wine
  • 180kcal in a 4% pint of beer 
  • 110kcal in a 25 ml shot, 37.5% gin and tonic

Calories can soon add up when drinking successively. As alcohol cannot be used to directly provide energy for muscular contraction, it gets stored as fat, serving no real purpose to your body. Instead, it puts greater pressure on your heart by reducing your body’s efficiency in utilising oxygen via lean muscle tissue and forcing the heart to work harder to support a greater a load.

+ It raises your blood pressure

There is a greater risk of hypertension and pre-hypertension associated with binge drinking. This is caused by increased arterial stiffness and damage to the lining of the blood vessels, meaning they do not properly manage blood flow around the body. Increased blood pressure can lead to a weakening of the blood vessel walls and in some cases, heart attack or stroke.

+ It can cause arrhythmias

Acute sessions of heavy drinking can cause a disturbance in heart rhythm, through slowing electrical conductivity. Frequent binge drinking can induce arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), such as atrial fibrillation. This has previously been termed ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’ due to the association with excessive holiday or weekend drinking. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to a change in the structure of the cardiac muscle and induce cardiomyopathy (enlarging of the heart).

+ It causes high cholesterol

Frequent heavy drinking can impair the functioning of the liver as, on average, it is only capable of metabolising one standard alcoholic drink per hour. The liver is also responsible for breaking down fats, so this impairment can lead to an increase in fats in the body. You are also more likely to eat unhealthy foods after binge drinking, leading to fatty plaque build-ups in the coronary arteries, causing them to narrow and reducing the amount of blood reaching the heart muscle.

What can you do about it?

  1. Try not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, for both men and women.
  2. Spread your alcohol intake throughout the week and limit the amount of alcohol you drink on one occasion.
  3. Try to drink with meals as you will tend to drink less. It puts a time frame on when you are drinking and you are more likely to appreciate it.
  4. Alternate alcohol with water, soft drinks, mocktails or other non-alcoholic options.
  5. Try to have at least 3 alcohol-free days per week to give your body a rest and reduce your dependence on and tolerance to alcohol.
  6. Use exercise as a great way to relax after work or a tough day, instead of relying on alcohol to destress. Exercise carries many other health benefits to further reduce heart disease.
  7. If you have had a heavy drinking session, try to avoid alcohol for at least 48 hours.
  8. Why not challenge yourself to go dry for a month? Dry January is just around the corner and you will immediately feel the short-term benefits, such as improved sleep and energy levels.
  9. Download the Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units App to help monitor alcohol intake.
  10. Speak to your CES and others around you to see how else we can support you.

*NIAAA (2004), NIAAA council approves definition of binge drinking. NIAAA Newsl 3:3.

Related reading

Piano M, Mazzuco A, Kang M, Phillips S. (2017) Cardiovascular Consequences of Binge Drinking: An Integrative Review with Implications for Advocacy, Policy, and Research. 41(3): 487-496

Tonelo D, Providencia R, Goncalves L. (2013) Holiday heart syndrome revisited after 34 years. 101(2): 183–189