Moderate Habitual Drinking Believed To Cause Irregular Heartbeat

First Posted: Dec 09, 2016 03:30 AM EST

It has been a known fact that drinking alcohol can affect the body in different ways. However, in previous studies, it has been revealed that drinking in small amounts can protect the heart from several types of disease. Now, a new study claims that moderate, habitual drinking may not experience the same protective effect when it comes to heart rate.

According to Medical Xpress, people who usually binge drink experience an irregular heartbeat or a heart "flutter," which is sometimes known as "holiday heart syndrome." However, people who drink smaller amounts of alcohol on a regular basis are also at higher risk of irregular heartbeat, according to an analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Irregular heartbeat, also known as atrial fibrillation, not only directly affects the heart itself but it is also a leading cause of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. Over 100 past studies revealed that a light to moderate intake of alcohol -- up to seven standard drinks per week for women and 14 standard drinks per week for men -- may lower down the risk of heart disease for some people, more specifically coronary heart disease. However, this review shows that this is not the case when it comes to having an irregular heartbeat.

"There has been a lot of attention in recent years about the benefits of drinking small amounts of alcohol for the heart," said the study's lead author, Professor Peter Kistler, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute and the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

"The results are significant, since chances are, there are people who are consuming one to two glasses of alcohol per day that may not realize they are putting themselves at risk for irregular heartbeat."

The study included following about 900,000 people for 12 years and reported an 8 percent rise in the risk of irregular heartbeat for every alcoholic drink per day consumed. Both men and women were equally affected. "While moderate amounts of alcohol appear protective for the 'plumbing' or blood supply to the heart muscle, the benefits of alcohol do not extend to the electrical parts of the heart or heartbeat," Kistler said.

Reports also revealed that alcohol has many effects on the human body, and several likely contribute to irregular heartbeat. Drinking can damage the cells and result in small amounts of fibrous tissue within the heart, causing an irregular heartbeat, reported Medical News Today.

Researchers found that people who continue to drink are more likely to have ongoing irregular heartbeats even after catheter ablation, an important treatment for irregular heartbeat where parts of the heart are cauterized.

Meanwhile, drinking may also have electrophysical effects, where heart cells contract in a coordinated way by moving electrical signals between cells. As time passes, drinking may change these electrical signals, which may trigger irregular heartbeat.

Reports also revealed that drinking may also have some effects on the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion and respiratory rate. The review found that alcohol stimulates this internal nervous system leading to irregular heartbeat.

"People who continue to consume alcohol at moderate rates may also notice their irregular heartbeats become more frequent. This is concerning, because it can lead to serious issues, such as heart failure and stroke," Kistler said. "So, even though we do not have randomized data that tells us what a 'safe' amount is to consume, people with an irregular heartbeat should probably drink no more than one alcoholic drink per day with two alcohol-free days a week."

It is also important to emphasize that researchers think there is still a need for more research to determine the specific causes responsible for the relationship between alcohol and irregular heartbeat. They think that they may need to include direct toxicity and alcohol's contribution to obesity, sleep-disordered breathing and hypertension. More research also needs to be done to determine whether avoiding alcohol completely is required for patients who have irregular heartbeats.

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