- New research finds that any amount of alcohol can impact high blood pressure, even in people who don't struggle with hypertension.
- For people without hypertension, drinking may increase their risk of hypertension.
- Experts recommend prioritizing healthy weight management, proper diet, and regular physical activity to maintain proper blood sugar levels.
As little as one alcoholic drink a day may negatively impact high blood pressure, a new study finds.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a condition causing blood vessel damage from blood pumping too forcefully. But research shows that even individuals without this condition can see their blood pressure take a negative turn due to alcohol consumption.
The new meta-analysis from the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests drinking any amount of alcohol on a daily basis can lead to high blood pressure. This supports the AHA’s recommendation to limit alcohol intake to manage blood pressure and to not start drinking alcohol if you do not already.
“Alcohol’s direct impact on blood pressure has been known for years, but the real question that has been vexing is what happens to blood pressure with low levels of alcohol intake,” said Paul K. Whelton, MD, MSc, study-coauthor, Show Chwan Chair in Global Public Health in the department of epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
Alcohol’s Impact on Blood Pressure
Whelton and the team reviewed thousands of studies, ultimately utilizing data from seven cohort or group studies involving some 20,000 participants with light-to-moderate alcohol intake across different continents including North America and Asia.
“What we saw was a direct and pretty linear relationship that was continuous from the lowest level of alcohol intake to the highest level of intake, particularly for systolic blood pressure,” said Whelton, who serves as the president of the World Hypertension League.
Systolic blood pressure is the first number in a blood pressure reading. Whelton explained it’s also the key number that identifies most of the cardiovascular risk.
He added that the risk of high blood pressure is consistent whether you drink wine, beer, or higher percentage alcohol.
“For people (both with and without hypertension), drinking alcohol will raise blood pressure,” said Cheng-Han Chen, MD, PhD, FACC, FSCAI, interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center.
Chen explained that for people without hypertension, drinking may actually contribute to a new diagnosis of hypertension, adding a new risk factor for heart disease.
“For patients currently with hypertension, drinking could further increase their risk of such diseases as heart attack or stroke,” he said.
How Much Alcohol is Too Much Alcohol?
The new research suggests that no amount of alcohol is heart-healthy.
“Our advice is in line with every guideline including the World Health Organization’s (WHO) that says if you’re not already drinking, don’t start drinking,” said Whelton.
Whelton notes the higher the intake of alcohol, the greater association with high blood pressure and the higher the blood pressure levels.
Some guidelines contain a limit to alcoholic drinks instead of advising against alcoholic drinks. Such guidelines include those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association.
Chen explained that for a long time, the consensus was that it might be "safe" to drink in moderation. “I expect that our medical recommendations regarding alcohol consumption are going to change in the future.”
He added that he tells patients that no amount of alcohol intake can be considered "heart-healthy."
“People have to consider their individual risks, and moderate their drinking as much as possible depending on their individual factors," Chen said.
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Reducing Blood Pressure Risk Factors Is Possible
Whelton stresses that lifestyle plays a huge part in blood pressure levels. "With or without hypertension, the more lifestyle risk factors you have, the greater the risk of developing high blood pressure," he said.
Many risk factors, including alcohol consumption, are modifiable. Whelton recommends trying to identify the factors that are most likely contributing to higher blood pressure and the factors you're most willing to work on changing, first.
Weight, diet, and physical activity can all contribute to someone's risk for high blood pressure.
A 2017 study showed that weight loss can reduce the risk of uncontrolled hypertension in overweight and obese persons with hypertension. The AHA explains having excess weight puts a strain on the heart which increases the risk of high blood pressure and blood vessel damage, leading to serious health complications.
When it comes to understanding the role nutrition plays in blood pressure, Whelton recommends people first assess their sodium intake.
"Sodium is very well-related to blood pressure,” he said. “In many countries including the US, there’s an excess of sodium which comes almost entirely from food processing."
Too much sodium can cause a deficiency in potassium as it will leach potassium from the cells to try to establish homeostasis or balance, he explained.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, or DASH diet, is specifically formulated to lower blood pressure, although any heart-healthy diet such as vegan or Mediterranean will also work, said Whelton.
Lastly, increasing physical activity has been shown to prevent and treat high blood pressure.
Whelton recommends brisk walking, dancing, running, and swimming when focusing on lowering blood pressure.
One meta-analysis including data from over 1200 people with hypertension found aerobic activity—like those Whelton mentioned—to be beneficial for lowering blood pressure.
The AHA recommends most healthy people get 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of physical activity per week to see heart health benefits.
Whelton noted that these modifiable lifestyle risk factors for high blood pressure are not consistent across the globe.
While we may see high blood pressure associated with aging populations in North America, he pointed to places like southwest China and Vietnam where blood pressure stays fairly consistent throughout the lifespan.
If someone starts adopting Western diet and lifestyle, he said, this is when high blood pressure can start presenting.
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