Think Before You Drink: Is there a link between alcohol and cholesterol?


  • Alcohol is a substance formed when yeast breaks down sugars in grains, fruits, and vegetables. 
  • It is considered to be a drug that can become harmful and addictive.
  • There are two types of cholesterol: low-density (LDL), the“bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol.
  • No more than one 5-ounce serving of alcohol per day is recommended to avoid high cholesterol.
  • Cholesterol can be lowered through a combination of diet, exercise, and medication.

Many people enjoy drinking alcohol. This is particularly true when they’re out socializing with friends. Having a drink can help us unwind from a busy day. They can also make us feel “buzzed” and happy. We don’t often think about the contents of alcohol when we’re drinking. However,  we know that it has an effect on the way we think, feel, and behave. 

Having a few drinks on occasion is fine. However, too much alcohol can cause a number of health problems. One of the main issues is heart disease, which is often stemming from high cholesterol. In order to weigh the pros and cons of drinking, we should further explore the relationship between alcohol and cholesterol.

 

What is alcohol?

 Alcohol is formed when yeast breaks down sugars in grains, fruits, and vegetables. The scientific term for alcohol is ethyl alcohol or ethanol. This ingredient is found in beer, wine, and liquor.

Alcohol is considered to be a drug that depresses, or slows down, our vital functions. This can cause us to have slurred speech, unsteady movements, and interfere with our ability to react quickly. Like other drugs, alcohol can be harmful and addictive

The amount of alcohol we drink also has different types of effects. When we have one or two drinks on occasion, we often feel more relaxed and content. However, if we consume more alcohol than our bodies can handle, it can have a more powerful effect on our coordination, perception, and control

 

What is cholesterol? 

 Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in our blood. It is essential for our bodies to help us build healthy cells. Too much cholesterol, however, can increase our risk for heart disease. This is due to the possible buildup of fatty deposits that can prevent blood from flowing into our arteries. In worst cases, it can form clots that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. 

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol. Cholesterol levels are determined mainly by your lifestyle and genetic makeup.

Some of the risk factors for high cholesterol are within our control. This is why it is important to get adequate exercise, eat healthy foods, and maintain a healthy weight. Other factors, such as genetics, are more difficult to manage. It is possible to be predisposed to having high LDL cholesterol due to our family history.

There are no symptoms associated with having high cholesterol. The only way to know our total cholesterol levels is through a blood test called a lipid profile. Healthy people have a:

  • total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL
  • LDL cholesterol levels below 130 mg/dL, and 
  • HDL cholesterol levels above 40 mg/dL

We should aim to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. This is needed to reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease.

The lipid profile will also reveal our total blood cholesterol. This is measured by adding up HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, plus 20% of our triglyceride level.

Triglycerides mostly come from food. They comprise the most common type of fat in our bodies. Having high triglycerides often indicates a high total cholesterol level. Since triglycerides are related to diet, we should avoid high saturated foods and excess sugar,  as well as increase our physical activity

How does alcohol affect cholesterol levels?

There is conflicting information about the effects of alcohol on our health. Some evidence suggests that red wine may be beneficial for our heart health. They contain antioxidants that may increase levels of HDL. This can further help prevent the buildup of cholesterol. One of the ingredients in red wine is resveratrol, which comes from the skin of grapes. Some studies suggest that this may help protect against blood vessel damage. Resveratrol may also help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. However, this has not yet been fully proven. Therefore, it is still important to drink in moderation.  

Other research indicates that other types of alcohol, such as beer and hard liquor, also reduce the risk of blood clots, raise HDL levels, and prevent damage to the arteries. These positive cardiovascular effects have been observed in healthy people, as well as those who already have heart disease. Studies indicate that light to moderate alcohol intake could be protective against heart disease and high cholesterol. However, additional studies are needed to confirm these results.

Can our cholesterol levels improve if we stop drinking? 

Some studies show that alcohol can raise the level of triglycerides and lower the level of HDL cholesterol in the blood. This can lead to chronic high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease. Alcohol can also cause weight gain, which can contribute to heart problems. There is a possible link between alcohol and various types of other diseases. These include some forms of cancer, liver disease, pancreatitis, and depression.

Overall, excessive drinking can cause damage to our bodies. We recommend consuming no more than one 5-ounce serving of alcohol per day. This will help one avoid high cholesterol. 

Alcohol is known to interfere with liver functioning and glucose production, which may cause or worsen diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic condition that is an important risk factor for heart disease. Therefore, it is important for those with diabetes to drink in moderation.

In addition to lowering cholesterol, cutting down on drinking also helps us sleep and concentrate better. This helps increase one’s energy and promote weight loss! These may then further contribute to feeling more positive about life in general. Overall, limiting our alcohol intake may greatly improve our heart health. It may also help prevent other serious health conditions.

 

What are some tips for cutting down on alcohol?

Having accurate information and being aware of the pros and cons of alcohol is a key first step. Similar to how we pay more attention to food labels once we know more about them, we can also check the percentages of alcohol in our drinks. Even a glass of wine can contain anywhere between 1.9 and 2.4 units of alcohol. 

There are various options to choose from that have lower alcohol percentages. We can also lessen the strength of the drink by adding ice, water, or seltzer. This also has the positive effect of making them last longer.

 It’s also preferable to drink while having a meal, rather than drinking on an empty stomach. Choosing smaller amounts of alcohol or taking the bottle off the table are other simple ways to decrease the amount of alcohol we drink.

How can we lower our cholesterol?

Now that we know how damaging high cholesterol is for our health, it’s essential to find ways to manage our heart health. The following list is a guide for taking charge of our cholesterol levels:

 

1.     Eat a heart-healthy diet. 

This means limiting or avoiding foods that are high in saturated fats. These include cakes, chips, red meat, butter, and cheese. We recommend replacing them with whole grains, nuts and seeds, plenty of fruits and vegetables, oily fish, and other low-fat options. 

 

2.     Cut down on alcohol.

Studies have shown that drinking less alcohol can lower cholesterol. It is recommended that women drink no more than 10 drinks per week. Meanwhile, men are recommended not to drink more than 15 drinks per week. 

 

3.     Stop smoking. 

Cigarette smoke increases your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also damages the walls of the arteries, allowing cholesterol to build up in these damaged areas. This can lead to chronic high blood pressure, and eventually to heart attacks or strokes. Once you stop smoking, the risk of heart disease begins to decrease significantly.

 

4.     Increase your physical activity.

It is advisable to do at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. This can range from working out at a gym, running, walking, swimming, or even cleaning or gardening. We recommend finding an activity that you enjoy. This will also make it easier for you to stick to a routine on a long-term basis.

 

5.     Take medication if needed.

If our cholesterol cannot be controlled by the above measures alone, taking cholesterol-lowering medications may be necessary. These drugs are known as “statins,” which are a group of medicines that helps lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Make sure to visit your doctor so that they can prescribe the best treatment for you.

 

6.     Check other ways of lowering cholesterol.

There are certain vitamins, supplements, and natural products that may be beneficial for lowering cholesterol. However, we recommend discussing these options with a doctor. This is to make sure that they are safe and effective for us to use.

There is an old phrase that states “everything in moderation.” This applies to many aspects of life, including our drinking habits. The takeaway message is to not binge on alcohol. We can still drink sensibly and responsibly. The majority of evidence points to various negative effects of drinking on cholesterol and heart disease. Therefore, we should always drink with caution. In order to stay healthy, it is advisable to follow the guidelines for lowering our cholesterol levels. This goes hand-in-hand with the tips to decrease the amount of alcohol we drink. As research in this area continues, we can apply these new findings to reap the benefits of longer and healthier lives.

Summary

There is an elevated risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol caused by excessive drinking. This has been demonstrated in many studies. This further highlights the connection between what we drink, how much we drink, and the rise and fall in our cholesterol levels. Sticking to the recommended amounts of alcohol is a primary consideration. This will help us in our decision-making for healthier lifestyle choices. There are simple ways to reduce the amount we drink, as well as lower our bad cholesterol and raise our good cholesterol levels. Seeing the glass as “half full” is not necessarily a bad thing. This is especially true when it comes to the way we drink. So, let’s raise a glass and toast to good health!

Scientific Information

  • Alcohol – A chemical substance found in drinks that is made by a process called fermentation that uses sugars and yeast. The scientific term for alcohol is ethyl alcohol or ethanol. 
  • CholesterolA waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver, and found in the blood and in all cells of the body. 
  • Triglycerides – The major form of fat stored by the body that also comes from the foods we eat.
  • Milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) – A unit of measure that shows the concentration of a substance in a specific amount of fluid.
Written by:

Alice Schluger, PhD

Health Psychology

Reviewed by:
Registered Dietitian
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