Menu

As the end of Dry January beckons, participants may want to overlook the benefits of abstaining, such as better sleep, clearer skin and more energy. But, before they reach for their tipple on 1st February, the findings from a new study may change their minds. Having just one small alcoholic drink a day raises the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat – a condition that causes dizziness and palpitations and leaves people more prone to strokes.

The researchers examined the heart health and drinking habits of 108,000 people aged 24–97 by combining records from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Italy over 14 years. They found that people who consumed as little as 12g of ethanol a day – equivalent to a 330 ml beer, a 120 ml glass of wine or 40 ml of spirits – were 16% more likely than teetotallers to develop atrial fibrillation.

The long-held belief that a small amount of alcohol protects against heart failure was confirmed in their findings, with 20 g of ethanol a day being optimum. However, the same was not true for atrial fibrillation, also called heart arrhythmia. It is well known that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation. However, this observational study is the first to suggest that regularly drinking even small amounts of alcohol may increase this risk.

“The take-home message is that in contrast to other cardiovascular diseases, even low and moderate alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation”, said Professor Renate Schnabel, a Consultant Cardiologist and co-author on the study at the University Heart and Vascular Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf.

“Many people have palpitations and dizziness, but one of the bad things about atrial fibrillation is that it’s asymptomatic and can lead to other problems such as stroke. In many people, a stroke is the first manifestation of the disease”, she added.

According to the report in the European Heart Journal [1], the increased risk of atrial fibrillation rose steadily from 16% for those who had one small drink a day, to 28% for up to two drinks, and 47% for more than four drinks. The risk of heart failure (when the heart pumps too weakly) is said to follow a J-shaped curve with alcohol intake: it is lower for people who drink a little than for those who are teetotal or heavy drinkers. The lifetime risk of developing atrial fibrillation ranges from about 23–38% depending on a person’s health – including how much alcohol they drink. People with atrial fibrillation are thought to have a 5–7% annual risk of stroke.

The absolute increase in risk of an irregular heartbeat was small for those consuming a small glass of alcohol a day, said Professor Schnabel. However, people should still be aware of the issue, she said. “People have to balance the risks and the benefits.”

The study findings may be of most importance to those who are more likely to develop heart arrhythmias due to obesity or high blood pressure. Reducing alcohol intake could lower the risk, including in those already diagnosed, said the Professor.

The increased risk of an irregular heart rate adds to the many other drawbacks to alcohol consumption, including dampening the immune system, increasing blood sugar levels, raising levels of inflammation, compromising gut health and raising the risk of multiple types of cancer. According to the charity Alcohol Change, a month off drinking lowers blood pressure, diabetes risk and cancer-related proteins in the blood. Maybe Dry January partakers should proceed to Sober Spring?  

If you’re concerned that you, a colleague or a member of your family is drinking too much, AlphaBiolabs can provide a number of alcohol testing solutions including continuous alcohol monitoring. For more information, please call 0333 600 1300 or email us at info@alphabiolabs.com

[1] Alcohol consumption, cardiac biomarkers, and risk of atrial fibrillation and adverse outcomes. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/ehaa953