One of the problems it can cause is high levels of cholesterol.
If allowed to go unchecked, high cholesterol can lead to serious and deadly acute medical emergencies, so it is very important that you understand the link between alcohol and cholesterol.
What exactly is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance produced naturally in the liver. It is a type of lipid, or blood fat. It, like other lipids, is carried through the bloodstream attached to proteins, and it fulfils a diverse array of functions.
Despite the negative connotations attached to the word, cholesterol is actually vitally important to our bodies. It forms a part of the protective membrane of every cell in the human body, it is used to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy by producing Vitamin D and steroid hormones, and it is also used to produce the bile we need to digest our food.
But too much cholesterol can clog up our blood vessels, which in turn can cause severe problems such as cardiac arrest, strokes, and coronary heart disease.
It is important to point out that there are different types of ‘cholesterol’. The two main types are high density lipoprotein (HDL) and low density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL carries the cholesterol lipids away from the body’s cells and back to the liver, where it is broken down and removed. HDL is commonly referred to as ‘good cholesterol’.
LDL does the opposite. It delivers the cholesterol lipids to the cells where it is needed, but if there is excess LDL in the blood it builds up and causes those dangerous blockages. LDL is commonly referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’.
Another type of blood fat worth mentioning is triglyceride, an acid that contributes to your overall cholesterol level. Triglycerides are our main source of energy.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a healthy level of total cholesterol would be less than 200mg/dl. Total levels over 240mg/dl are considered too high, and bad LDL should be kept below 100mg/dl.
Are there any positive links between Alcohol Consumption and Cholesterol Levels?
You may have heard that drinking alcohol, especially red wine, actually has a positive impact on your heart’s health and your cholesterol levels. There is some truth to this, but it is important to put it into perspective.
According to Harvard Medical School, alcohol can increase the levels of good HDL in your blood, helping to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Red wine has the positive reputation it does because it also contains resveratrol, a plant chemical that helps to reduce inflammation.
But Harvard Medical School are also careful to point out that the damaging effects of alcohol consumption can very quickly and easily outweigh this small positive, and that there are much more effective and safe ways of increasing your levels of HDL- maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, and exercising regularly being the best ways to do so.2
The bad side of Alcohol Consumption and Cholesterol
When you drink beer, wine or spirits, your body breaks the alcohol down and then rebuilds it into triglycerides and cholesterol in the liver. This means that the more alcohol you drink, the more cholesterol and triglycerides are produced in your body.
And it is important to consider that it is not just alcohol you are consuming when you drink. Alcoholic beverages like beer and cider contain high amounts of carbohydrates, which also produce large quantities of triglycerides when digested.
Extremely sugary drinks like rum also produce additional cholesterol, and the sugar in soft drinks and juices added to cocktails further exacerbates the problem.
Because alcohol is processed in the liver- where cholesterol is naturally made- there is also a link between alcoholic liver disease and cholesterol levels. The liver is an extremely complex organ. It is incredibly resilient, and capable of regenerating itself. But every time your liver processes alcohol, some of its cells die.
Consistent alcohol abuse can cause seriously hamper the liver’s ability to regenerate, causing permanent and serious damage. One consequence of liver disease is that your body is unable to properly remove cholesterol as it should, leading to dangerous build-ups of cholesterol in the blood vessels.
How to Avoid Excessive Alcohol intake and High Cholesterol
The best way to ensure you keep your cholesterol levels within healthy limits is to practice moderation when drinking. In general, you should always try to stay within the bounds of the national recommended intake.
According to the NHS, both men and women are strongly advised to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. One unit is roughly equivalent to a half pint of normal strength beer or cider, or a single measure of spirits. Heart UK, a leading cholesterol charity, also offers the following advice:
- -Alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or water
- -Make your drinks last longer by adding mixers, ice or water
- -Try drinking more slowly
- –Don’t drink every day of the week. Make sure there are full days where you do not drink any alcohol at all
Unfortunately, high cholesterol does not present any symptoms by itself, so it often goes unnoticed until it is too late and the damage has already been done.
If you are worried about your alcohol consumption and/or your cholesterol levels, you should go and have a test. You should contact your GP first, and they will be able to advise you.
There are two ways that doctors test cholesterol levels. The first is by taking a sample of blood from your arm. Like most blood tests, you will probably be advised not to eat anything for 24 hours before getting your blood drawn.
When tested in this way, it usually takes a few days before you get your results. The other method is a finger-prick test. This is much quicker, generally taking a few minutes, and if you are over 40 this may be included as part of your NHS health check-up. Regardless, if you are worried, you should ask for a cholesterol test.
For more information about cholesterol testing, visit the NHS website.
Posted on Friday, March 26th, 2021 at 9:36 am in Alcohol Addiction.