Red wine being poured in a glass

Alcohol and the heart

Drinking in moderation or not at all - which is better for heart health?

6 September 2023

Many Australians enjoy socialising over a glass of wine or a beer, but it can be hard to decipher the mixed messages when it comes to alcohol and heart health.

While we’re well aware of the risks involved with consuming too much alcohol, there’s conflicting advice as to whether it’s better for our hearts to have the occasional drink or to abstain from drinking altogether.

To cut through the confusion, we look at the research, what the official guidelines recommend, and share the Institute’s verdict on alcohol and heart health risks.

What does the research say?

In 2018, an analysis of 83 studies that included a total of 600,000 people found that for cardiovascular disease, with the exception of heart attack, the lower your alcohol consumption the lower your disease risk.

Zero to one drink per day was associated with the lowest risk.

In early 2022, the World Heart Federation (WHF) released a policy brief that advised that any level of alcohol consumption can lead to loss of healthy life.

The WHF expressed concerns that current research suggesting there may be heart health benefits to drinking alcohol are based on observational research that doesn’t take into account factors such as pre-existing health conditions, age and nationality of the participants, and previous alcohol consumption in those who are currently abstinent.

In early 2023, the potential protective benefits of alcohol were also queried by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who advised the less alcohol a person consumes the better.

WHO agreed that there is currently no evidence to show a safe level of drinking, and that no studies have shown that the potential heart health benefits of light to moderate drinking aren’t outweighed by cancer risk associated with the same level of alcohol consumption.

So what about red wine? Red wine has no doubt received the most attention for its potential cardiovascular benefits due to the antioxidant effects of resveratrol – which can be found in red wine, grape skins, peanuts, and blueberries.

While studies have shown an association between consuming wine and alcohol and cardiovascular benefits, these studies have not been able to confirm a cause-and-effect link.

What do the Australian alcohol guidelines recommend?

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises that healthy adults should drink no more than:

People under the age of 18, and pregnant or breastfeeding women, should not consume any alcohol.

It’s important to note that these guidelines are for healthy adults and are not specific to heart health. Instead, they are aimed at reducing overall risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

The Australian Department of Health and Aged Care advises that any amount of drinking comes with a degree of risk and that by drinking less you can lower your risk of harm.

So what’s the Institute’s verdict on alcohol and heart health?

The Institute’s Executive Director Professor Jason Kovacic advises that one glass of red wine per day may be beneficial in healthy adults for reducing the progression or development of atherosclerosis – which is the most common cardiovascular disease and which causes blockages of the arteries that can culminate in heart attack or stroke.

Alcohol is however likely to be detrimental in any amount for most other cardiac issues - including cardiomyopathy, cardiac rhythm issues, and other genetic cardiac problems.

Therefore, for many people without heart disease or a genetic risk, consuming one glass of alcohol per day may be ok, but it’s a trade of potential benefits in reducing atherosclerosis versus potential harm from other conditions.

For those who don’t currently drink alcohol, Professor Kovacic advises that there is no reason to take up drinking based on potential heart health benefits.

People with any concerns in relation to heart health and alcohol consumption - particularly those with genetic risks, existing heart conditions, or other existing health conditions - should discuss their individual circumstances with their GP or cardiologist.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years