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The acute effects of alcohol on electrocardiogram (ECG) readings have been presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s EHRA 2018 Congress. The results show that the more alcohol you drink, the higher your heart rate gets.

Binge drinking has long been linked with atrial fibrillation in a phenomenon termed ‘the holiday heart syndrome’. This connection was initially based on small studies from 1978. The latest research involved taking ECG readings and measuring breath alcohol concentrations of 3012 people attending the 2015 Munich Oktoberfest. Conducted by cardiologists from University Hospital Munich, supported by the German Cardiovascular Research Centre (DZHK) and the European Commission, the study was called the Munich Beer Related Electrocardiogram Workup (MunichBREW). Participants were an average of 35 years old and 30% were women.

The researchers investigated the association between blood alcohol concentration and four ECG parameters: excitation (heart rate), conduction (PR interval, QRS complex) and repolarisation (QT interval). Increased heart rate was associated with higher breath alcohol concentration: the association was linear, with no threshold. Alcohol consumption had no effect on the other three parameters.

“The more alcohol you drink, the higher your heart rate gets”, said Dr Stefan Brunner, one of the lead authors of the study.

The researchers are now investigating whether the increase in heart rate with alcohol consumption could lead to heart rhythm disorders in the longer-term.

Dr Moritz Sinner, another lead author, said: “We cannot yet conclude that a higher heart rate induced by alcohol is harmful. But people with heart conditions already have a higher heart rate, which in many cases triggers arrhythmias, including atrial fibrillation. So, it is plausible that the higher heart rate following alcohol consumption could lead to arrhythmias.”

He added: “Most people in our study were young and healthy. If we conducted the same study in older people or heart patients we might have found an association between drinking alcohol and arrhythmias.”

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