Alcohol and Cholesterol

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance which is carried around the body by proteins. When cholesterol and proteins come together they are called lipoproteins and there are two types, “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. The consumption of alcohol has various effects on your health and depending on how much you drink, and it can affect your cholesterol levels.

Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol has been shown to have a positive effect on ‘good’ cholesterol (also known as high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or HDL) levels. Good cholesterol is thought to slow the build-up of arterial plaque. Arterial plaque build-up leads to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases

On the other hand, drinking excessively could be linked to high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL). High LDL levels increase the risk of heart disease as they are thought to be linked to the build-up of arterial plaque and the associated increased risk of heart disease.

Drinking alcohol excessively as well as eating too much fat also raises levels of a blood lipid (fat) called triglycerides, which are also a risk factor in heart disease.

People whose circulatory systems carry high amounts of LDL (bad) cholesterol and low amounts of HDL (good) cholesterol have increased chances of cardiovascular conditions including stroke, heart attack and heart disease.

Can Alcohol Cause High Cholesterol?

Drinking too much has been found to increase your cholesterol levels. A study published in 2013 found that occasional heavy drinking can significantly increase LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels when compared with both non-drinkers and regular heavy drinkers. The occasional heavy drinkers were also found to have low levels of protective HDL cholesterol. Even occasional heavy drinking should be avoided to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Another study found that drinking moderately could actually increase the levels of good HDL cholesterol in the blood, reducing the risk of heart disease. The US study found that “Moderate alcohol intake is associated with lower atherosclerosis risk, presumably due to increased HDL cholesterol (HDL-C) concentrations”.

In addition to excessive alcohol consumption, other lifestyle factors such as eating an unhealthy diet, smoking, and not exercising enough can contribute to high levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver disease or diabetes can also affect these levels.

Should You Stop Drinking if You Have High Cholesterol?

In addition to contributing to higher levels of bad LDL cholesterol in the blood, excessive consumption of alcohol, whether regular or occasional, has many negative effects on health. If you have high levels of bad LDL cholesterol, you may be at risk of heart disease and regular excessive drinking is not advisable.

Moderate drinking, especially of red wine, may actually be beneficial for heart health as this can have a positive effect on the levels of good HDL cholesterol, which protect against heart disease.

If a blood test determines that you have high levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood, it is advisable to cut down your alcohol consumption to improve your general health.

Cholesterol is measured in units called millimols per litre of blood (mmol/l). A total cholesterol level (HDL and LDL) under 4mmol/l is ideal, especially if you have or are at risk of heart and circulatory disease. Your LDL level should ideally be below 2 mmol/l and your HDL level above 1 mmol/l.

How Much Alcohol Can You Safely Drink?

Current UK government guidelines state that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. They suggest drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women. 1 unit is half a pint of beer or cider, a small glass of wine or a single measure of spirits. 

Can You Drink Alcohol With Statins?

Statins are a widely used type of medicine formulated to help lower the levels of bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. They are usually prescribed if the patient has not seen a reduction in LDL levels after adopting lifestyle changes such as eating a healthier diet and taking more exercise. However, they have side effects which can affect your liver. The liver plays a key role in metabolising the alcohol that you drink.

According to the NHS, there are no known interactions between statins and alcohol. However, ‘Statins shouldn't be taken if you have severe liver disease or blood tests suggest that your liver may not be working properly’.

People who take statins and regularly drink large quantities of alcohol should be monitored regularly to prevent a rare side effect called rhabdomyolysis, where the tissues of your muscles become damaged and painful.

Alcohol abuse is a known risk factor for this side effect.

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