Close to the heart

The relationship between alcohol and the heart is a troubled one - there is a great deal of confusion about the benefits and disadvantages of drinking alcohol, which isn't helped by conflicting reports in the media. One day we hear that red wine is good for you, and the next we're being warned how many deaths alcohol is responsible for.

There are clearly two sides to the coin so let's take a look at the facts.

The immediate effects of alcohol

Within minutes of alcohol reaching your stomach it's absorbed into your bloodstream via the small intestine. It takes between 45 and 90 minutes for your blood alcohol level to peak, depending on how fast you're drinking and how full your stomach is with food and non-alcoholic drinks. Other factors that can speed up the absorption of alcohol are the strength of the drink, carbonation of the drink and a small physical build.

Once your body has absorbed the alcohol, the liver breaks most of it down into substances that can be broken down and excreted in your urine and on your breath. The liver generally takes somewhere in the region of around one hour to break down each unit of alcohol consumed - so as a general rule, your blood alcohol concentration will continue to increase as long you drink in excess of a single unit every hour.

To give you some perspective on this, one unit of alcohol is less than either a small glass of wine or a half pint of beer - so as you can see, the idea of driving home after drinking 'carefully' is a very dangerous one and shouldn't be done. Any consumption of alcohol will affect your judgment and reaction times to some degree.

Alcohol and your future risk of heart disease

Long-term heavy drinking can lead to an increased risk of heart disease because it can increase both your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In addition, binge drinking can cause irregular heartbeats, breathlessness and chest pain.

However, regular but small amounts of alcohol are known to slightly reduce your risk if you are over 45 years old and drinking well within the recommended guidelines. The alcohol does this by increasing the levels of HDL in your blood - the protective element of your cholesterol profile. Red wine can have a further protective effect because it contains high concentrations of flavonoids - substances that are known to help prevent blood clots.

Again, some perspective - for a significant protective affect, you should consume no more than two units per day if you're a male and one unit per day if you're a female. Any more than this and the protection soon fades, with the risk significantly increasing the more you drink.

Remember, however, that this protection only relates to your risk of cardiovascular disease - other than that, alcohol is, at best, of no further benefit to your health and, at worst, highly detrimental to your physical and mental wellbeing. Drinking alcohol should never therefore be used as a lifestyle to improve your health - you should instead focus on other areas of lifestyle such as keeping physically active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, managing your stress levels and avoiding all forms of tobacco.