Typically, your heart beats along at a regular pace between 60 and 100 beats per minute. If your heart rate is slower or faster (and you’re not exercising), that’s called a heart rhythm disturbance or arrhythmia. While that might sound scary, not all irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias are created equally, as only some can be dangerous.
“The spectrum is wide. It spans everything between a single skipped or premature heartbeat, which is typically benign, to imminently life-threatening episodes that could cause a cardiac arrest,” said Roderick Tung, MD, an electrophysiologist and chief of cardiology with Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ.
Here’s what could happen to your heart when you drink alcohol
One of the factors that can affect your heart rhythm is the amount of alcohol you consume. Alcohol can trigger atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib), an irregular rhythm in the upper chambers of the heart, which can feel like fluttering or rapid pounding sensations in the chest. It’s the most common sustained arrhythmia in adults worldwide, and it’s linked with an increased risk of stroke, heart failure and dementia. Patients with diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and obesity are at increased risk for AFib. In addition, binge drinking can lead to a condition called holiday heart syndrome, where you have an arrhythmia the day after you drink heavily.
“That doesn’t mean that moderate alcohol consumption is harmful to everyone. People respond differently. Not everyone is sensitive to the effects of alcohol in the same way, and there are important differences in genetics and lifestyles that impact susceptibility,” Dr. Tung said. “But if you notice heart rhythm abnormalities during or after alcohol consumption, you should strongly consider cutting back or avoiding.” And if you drink, keep it light or moderate (two drinks per day for men, and one per day for women). Heavy drinking is linked with heart failure and liver disease.
According to two recent studies, if you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, you may want to consider abstaining from alcohol. One, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that AFib occurred less often in people who stopped drinking completely. And in another study, from the University of California San Francisco, it found that alcohol can severely affect the electrical system within the heart that controls your heartbeat, making a person susceptible to AFib.
What are the health risks of abnormal heart rhythms?
Abnormal heart rhythms are most dangerous in people who already have heart disease or heart conditions. For example, if you’ve had a heart attack, you may have scar tissue in your heart muscle. An abnormal heart rhythm can reroute the heart’s electrical impulse around the scar tissue and create a dangerous short circuit. Abnormal heart rhythms are risk factors linked with stroke and heart failure. People who are elderly or obese or who have high blood pressure are at higher risk of problems from abnormal heart rhythms.
And whether you drink alcohol or not, be sure to get checked for sleep apnea if your partner says you breathe irregularly when you are sleeping or if you wake up gasping for air. Sleep apnea can increase your risk of AFib, heart failure, high blood pressure and pulmonary hypertension.
The bottom line
If you drink alcohol, it could affect your heart rhythm and lead to heart complications, particularly AFib. If you would like to talk to a health care professional about cutting back on your drinking or reducing your risk of heart problems, reach out to Banner Health.