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Alcohol may have an immediate effect on heart rhythm, study finds

Experts worry about the risks associated with alcohol and atrial fibrillation

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Photo (c) Maltaguy1 - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the American College of Cardiology explored the heart health risks associated with drinking alcohol. According to their findings, alcohol can almost immediately impact heart rhythm, which can also increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib). 

“Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in the world, and there is still a lot we don’t understand about what it does to our bodies, and in particular, our hearts,” said researcher Dr. Gregory M. Marcus. 

“Based on our data, we found that alcohol can actually influence the likelihood that an episode of AFib will occur within a few hours, and the more alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of having an event.” 

Alcohol’s impact on heart rhythm

The researchers had 100 participants with intermittent AFib involved in the study. Over the course of four weeks, the group wore monitors on their ankles and hearts that measured both alcohol consumption and heart rate. The participants self-reported on the heart monitors any time they surpassed three alcoholic beverages, and the researchers conducted interviews with the group to determine their typical lifestyle habits and medical histories. 

Over the course of the study, more than half of the participants experienced an AFib episode within hours of drinking alcohol, and the more they drank, the higher the likelihood of an AFib episode; however, even having just one drink led to complications with heart rhythm. 

“There is conventional wisdom that alcohol is ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ for the heart, based on observational studies, but that relates to coronary heart disease and heart attack,” Dr. Marcus said. “These new data present an interesting conundrum regarding the overall risks versus benefits of alcohol in moderation. But the data is very clear that more is not better when it comes to alcohol; those who drink more have a higher risk of heart attack and death.” 

Based on the blood alcohol reading from the ankle monitors, the researchers learned that each 0.1% increase in blood alcohol concentration increased the risk of an AFib episode by 40%. Surpassing two drinks in one sitting made AFib incidents three times more likely to occur for the participants. 

“When patients ask me what they can do to avoid an AFib episode, I tell them the evidence suggests that they should minimize, if not completely eliminate, alcohol,” Dr. Marcus said. “But we have to consider quality of life as well, which is both relevant to arrhythmia symptoms and the opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine once in a while for some. So, it’s not as simple as instructing everyone to avoid alcohol.” 

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