What Are the Effects of Alcohol on Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is defined as the pressure at which blood that’s circulating pushes against the walls of the blood vessel. Drinking alcohol affects blood pressure in several ways, but in short, unhealthy drinking can and most likely will raise your blood pressure. Up to 16% of all individuals diagnosed with high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, have developed the condition due to heavy drinking. There are many different reasons why alcohol raises your blood pressure – it releases various hormones, like cortisol and renin, that cause your blood vessels to constrict and blood pressure to increase. Alcoholic beverages are often high in sugar and calories, which can also contribute to high blood pressure by causing weight gain.
Let’s take a closer look at blood pressure and how it can be improved by cutting back on alcohol.
What is High Blood Pressure?
You may have heard two numbers whenever you get a blood pressure reading. What do each of those numbers mean? The first number indicates how much pressure is being exerted against the walls of your arteries when your heart beats and is referred to as systolic blood pressure. The second number measures the pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats and is known as diastolic pressure.
A normal blood pressure reading is less than or equal to 120/80 mm Hg, while anything greater than 130/80 mm Hg is considered high. “Hypertension” is just another way of saying high blood pressure, while hypotension, oppositely, is a way to refer to low blood pressure.
That being said, the guidelines to diagnose high blood pressure may vary from one healthcare professional to another and health guidelines may also vary from year to year. If you take a blood pressure reading at home or at a pharmacy and see that your numbers are out of range, it’s best to consult with a medical professional for a proper diagnosis.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
Generally, high blood pressure develops over time and is often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Some of the key factors that lead to high blood pressure include:
- Lack of physical activity
- A high-sodium diet
- Thyroid disorders
- Sleep apnea
- Alcohol use
Why Does Drinking Cause High Blood Pressure?
In 2020, a review from The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that alcohol can cause the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) to become hyperactive. This is a hormone system that maintains a balance of fluids and electrolytes in the body. When the activity of RAAS increases, so does blood volume and blood pressure.
There have also been studies that show low levels of alcohol increase the level of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, something that promotes the dilation of the blood vessels. When the blood vessels become dilated, blood pressure temporarily drops. This means drinking can actually cause a short-term period of low blood pressure. Once levels start to drop though, the body tries to compensate for the change and blood pressure rises. High levels of alcohol or chronic use have been shown to lead to decreased nitric oxide levels, which is believed to also contribute to high blood pressure.
Lastly, alcohol increases the body’s production of cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone. When the body increases its production of cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure increase.
Alcohol-Related High Blood Pressure: Symptoms & Diagnosis
Although high blood pressure from unhealthy drinking is very common, it generally doesn’t present many symptoms. In fact, many people have high blood pressure and don’t even realize it. It’s recommended that most people get their blood pressure checked at least once a year at their routine physical. If blood pressure reaches extreme highs, it’s possible to experience any of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Blurry vision
- Headaches and migraines
- Irregular heartbeat
When it comes to diagnosis, it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the underlying cause of high blood pressure. Your healthcare professional will likely ask you a series of questions about your lifestyle to see which aspects could be at the root of your high blood pressure and make a diagnosis based on that. If you’re consuming three or more drinks a day, it’s possible that alcohol could be a culprit.
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Risks of High Blood Pressure
Prolonged high blood pressure carries many general health risks. For one, it damages your arteries, making them less elastic, which in turn lowers the amount of blood and oxygen that flows to your heart. This can lead to heart disease, which can ultimately result in a heart attack or heart failure.
High blood pressure also presents serious risks to the brain. If the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the brain burst or become blocked, it can cause a stroke. A stroke causes brain cells to die because they don’t get enough oxygen. A stroke, aside from potentially being fatal, can cause disabilities in speech, movement, and other basic activities. Lastly, high blood pressure during middle age has been linked to poorer cognitive function and dementia later in life.
Does Drinking Alcohol in Moderation Raise Blood Pressure?
Despite common misconceptions that small amounts of alcohol, particularly wine, can have blood pressure benefits, it’s possible for even moderate drinking to raise your blood pressure. A study of more than 17,000 U.S. adults done by the American College of Cardiology shows that moderate alcohol consumption – seven drinks per week for women and 14 drinks per week for men – can significantly raise someone’s risk of high blood pressure. It’s important to note, however, that moderation is certainly lower risk than heavy drinking. The more alcohol you drink, the more at risk you are for developing hypertension. Many people use moderation as a tool for harm-reduction and stepping stone towards sobriety.
Can You Reduce High Blood Pressure by Drinking Less?
Reducing alcohol consumption actually helps to lower blood pressure in two ways. First, just by drinking less alcohol, your blood pressure will go down. One study that was published in Alcohol and Alcoholism analyzed 147 detoxing patients for 18 days. While blood pressure increased in 55% of the patients on day one of the detoxes, by the last day, only 21% showed signs of elevated blood pressure. In summary, the evidence suggests that as long as you give your body a period of time to recover, blood pressure should decrease.
Secondly, almost all types of alcoholic drinks are calorie heavy and can lead to weight gain. As most nutritionists will tell you, cutting alcohol from the diet is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve physical fitness. Being overweight increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, and it has been shown that, if overweight, reducing your weight by just ten pounds can significantly lower your blood pressure.
How Does Alcohol Affect People With Low Blood Pressure?
When alcohol first enters the body, blood vessels can dilate and blood pressure can temporarily drop. If a person is already suffering from hypotension (low blood pressure), this could worsen the condition. A 2000 study published in AHA Journals studied the effects of short-term alcohol consumption on vasoconstriction and found that alcohol is a potential contributor to people losing consciousness after consumption.
Changing your relationship with alcohol can be a life-changing experience, and lowering your blood pressure is just one of the many benefits. You don’t have to wait for health concerns to develop in order to get started, and you don’t have to do it alone. At Monument, you can discuss your health history and treatment options with a physician specialized in helping people cut back on drinking. We’re here to support you in becoming your healthiest and happiest self.
- Heart.org. “Understanding Blood Pressure Readings, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/understanding-blood-pressure-readings.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- HSE. “Alcohol’s effect on the body, https://www.hse.ie/eng/about/who/board-members/.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- WebMD. “Causes of High Blood Pressure, https://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/guide/blood-pressure-causes.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- WebMD. “Alcoholism and Blood Pressure: What You Should Know, https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/addiction-treatment-recovery/alcohol/how-alcoholism-affects-blood-pressure.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- CDC. “High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes, https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- US National Institutes of Health. “Your Guide To Lowering Blood Pressure, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/heart/hbp_low.pdf.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- AHA Journals. “Alcohol Potentiates Orthostatic Hypotension, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.CIR.101.4.398.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.
- American College of Cardiology. “Moderate alcohol consumption linked with high blood pressure, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190307081024.htm.” Accessed Jan 10, 2023.