The affect alcohol can have on health can depend on how much you are drinking and genetic factors. Studies have shown drinking alcohol in moderation is associated with lowered risk of stroke, peripheral vascular disease and death from cardiovascular disease (1).
The heart health benefits from alcohol may be from the antioxidants from alcohol, like from red wine, but may also be from the alcohol itself.
Alcohol in moderation may increase HDL cholesterol which is beneficial for heart health. Other health benefits associated with alcohol in moderation may include lowered risk for type 2 diabetes and gallstones.
On the other hand, drinking more than the moderate recommendation (up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men) can increase risk for liver inflammation, high blood pressure, heart damage and may increase risk for certain cancers.
Therefore, alcohol may have certain health benefits in moderation, but drinking over this guideline can increase risk for negative health outcomes.
There are also individual genetic variances how alcohol affects the cardiovascular system.
Alcohol and HDL cholesterol
The heart health benefits associated with moderate alcohol intake may be from the way alcohol affects cholesterol according to WebMD (2).
A 2000 study (3) found alcohol increased HDL in a dose dependent way. Increasing levels of HDL cholesterol is considered beneficial for heart health.
HDL can help keep arteries clear of plaque build up, so having higher levels of HDL cholesterol is considered a beneficial thing.
A 2001 study (4) found alcohol intake was negatively associated with LDL cholesterol levels.
This suggests not only does alcohol in moderation increase beneficial HDL cholesterol, but it may also help lower LDL cholesterol.
Having a low LDL and high HDL cholesterol is considered favorable for heart health.
Mayo Clinic (5) suggests drinking alcohol in moderation is one of the top five changes you can make to improve your cholesterol.
However, drinking alcohol in moderation is only advisable for people who already drink alcohol. If you do not drink alcohol, it is not recommended to start drinking alcohol for heart health benefits.
Alcohol’s affect on cholesterol over the moderation guideline
The way alcohol impacts heart and other measures of health can be a fine balance.
Drinking up to the moderation guideline is associated with positive effect on blood cholesterol levels.
However, drinking above the moderation guideline is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and increase blood triglyceride levels.
Therefore, drinking more alcohol does not equal more heart health benefit. If you do not currently drink alcohol, it is not recommended to start drinking alcohol for health benefit.
Pregnant women and those on certain medications should avoid alcohol consumption.
Some research suggests alcohol intake could be associated with an increased risk for breast cancer. Drinking two or more drinks a day has been shown in women to increase risk of breast cancer.
According to Harvard School of Public Health, genes can influence how alcohol impacts the cardiovascular system. Genetics can also play a role in developing alcoholism.
Therefore, even though there are general guidelines in place for moderate alcohol consumption and research to suggest positive role in heart health, you should speak with your doctor for any individual questions you have about how moderate alcohol may affect your health.
Cholesterol levels can also be impacted by genetics. Some people naturally produce more LDL cholesterol or naturally have lower HDL levels even if they make changes to help increase it.
Other ways to positively affect cholesterol
Besides drinking alcohol in moderation, there are other ways you can positively affect cholesterol levels.
Dietary, weight and exercise changes can all help lower LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol.
Exercise can help increase HDL levels which in turn can help lower risk for heart disease.
A 2001 study (6) compared the blood lipid levels in men after 20 weeks of endurance training.
Researchers found in men who had low HDL cholesterol and high blood triglyceride levels, endurance exercise had a significant impact on raising HDL levels that may be associated with losing fat around the mid section with exercise.
Mayo Clinic suggests losing just 5 to 10 percent of body weight can help lower blood cholesterol levels.
Incorporating more exercise and dietary changes for weight loss can also positively impact cholesterol levels.
Lastly, there are dietary changes you can make to influence blood cholesterol levels. Increasing your fiber intake, specifically soluble fiber, can help lower LDL cholesterol.
Soluble fiber can be found in: oats, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Increasing omega 3 fatty acids in your diet may help increase HDL levels.
Omega 3 fats can be found in fatty fish, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds and ground flaxseeds.
Switching to more monounsaturated fats in place of trans or saturated fats can also be beneficial for cholesterol levels.
Foods that are good sources of monounsaturated fats include: avocados, olive oil and nuts.
Cutting back on fried foods, packaged baked goods and fatty cuts of meat can help lower saturated and trans fats.
Conclusion: Alcohol’s affect on cholesterol
Alcohol does have an impact on cholesterol, and research suggests if you stay at or under the moderation intake, the affect alcohol has on cholesterol is positive.
Alcohol can help increase HDL cholesterol. Having a high level of HDL can actually lower risk for heart disease.
On the other hand, drinking above the recommended alcohol intake can increase risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and liver damage.
If someone does not drink alcohol, it is not recommended to start drinking alcohol for health benefits.
There are other lifestyle changes you can make that will positively affect cholesterol. Weight loss, exercise, increasing fiber, increasing monounsaturated fats can also positively affect cholesterol levels.
Genetics can also play a role in how much cholesterol your body makes and how the body metabolizes alcohol to affect heart health.
If you have questions about your health and moderate alcohol consumption, speak with your doctor.