Share on Pinterest
Experts say your risk of atrial fibrillation increases along with your alcohol intake. Ljuba Photo/Getty Images
  • Researchers say even one alcoholic drink a day can increase your risk of atrial fibrillation.
  • They add that the risk increases with each drink added to a person’s day.
  • Experts say research is mixed on whether moderate consumption of alcohol has health benefits.

Just one alcoholic drink a day can increase risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib).

That’s the conclusion of a study published in the European Heart Journal.

Researchers said they found that having an alcoholic drink every day was associated with a 16 percent increase in risk for atrial fibrillation over an average 14-year follow-up period when compared to people who didn’t drink.

“We can now demonstrate that even very low regular alcohol consumption may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation,” Dr. Renate Schnabel, lead author of the study and a consultant cardiologist at the University Heart and Vascular Center in Germany, said in a press release.

“These findings are important, as the regular consumption of alcohol — the ‘one glass of wine a day’ to protect the heart — as is often recommended for instance in the lay press, should probably no longer be suggested without balancing risks and possible benefits for all heart and blood vessel diseases, including atrial fibrillation,” she said.

The researchers said AFib risk also increased with more alcohol intake.

Those who had up to 2 alcoholic drinks a day had a 28 percent increased risk of atrial fibrillation, and those who consumed more than 4 drinks a day had a 47 percent increased risk when compared to people who didn’t drink.

“Alcohol consumption across common types of alcoholic beverages and drinking patterns was associated with an increased atrial fibrillation risk even at low doses,” the study authors wrote.

“Given recent trials among moderate drinkers showing reduced episodes of atrial fibrillation recurrence after periods of abstinence, and the fact that we found that even low levels of alcohol intake may confer risk, a strategy of reduction of alcohol consumption might have the potential to prevent a substantial number of cases of atrial fibrillation,” the researchers wrote.

“Alcohol is a modifiable risk factor and change in drinking behavior may affect atrial fibrillation risk,” they continued.

Atrial fibrillation, also referred to as AFib or AF, is the most common form of heart arrhythmia.

Arrhythmia refers to the heart beating irregularly, either too slowly or too quickly.

“Atrial fibrillation is an irregular rhythm of the upper chambers of the heart that causes discoordination of cardiac electrical impulses between the top chambers and the bottom chambers. This disorganized arrhythmia can cause a myriad of symptoms and can also cause stroke,” Dr. Jonathan Hsu, a cardiologist at UC San Diego Health, told Healthline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), atrial fibrillation is responsible for more than 454,000 hospitalizations in the United States every year. It also contributes to the deaths of roughly 158,000 people annually.

The death rate due to atrial fibrillation as either the primary cause of death or a contributing cause of death has been increasing for the past two decades.

The CDC estimates that by 2030, more than 12 million people in the United States will have AFib.

Some people experiencing atrial fibrillation might not experience any symptoms, but others may.

“Atrial fibrillation can present differently for many people. Some symptoms that can be associated with atrial fibrillation include fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations (fluttering sensation of the heart), dizziness, and lightheadedness,” Dr. Megan Kamath, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles, told Healthline.

“It is important that patients discuss these symptoms with their medical provider, so appropriate diagnostic testing can be done to further assess their symptoms,” Kamath said.

Smoking, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are just some risk factors for atrial fibrillation. Alcohol is also a risk factor.

“One of the known causes of AF is alcohol. It is known that when you drink a lot of alcohol, there is an association, with having say, an alcoholic binge and having AF thereafter,” Dr. Sanjiv Narayan, director of the AF Program at Stanford Health Care in California, told Healthline. “But what this study really adds is the amount of alcohol needed and the fact that it may not be very much.”

Past studies have suggested that for some heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease, alcohol may have a protective effect, but Narayan said there have been contradictory results from studies more recently.

“More broadly, the studies are conflicting. It used to be felt that alcohol could be beneficial in some ways by increasing the level of your good cholesterol, the HDL, and potentially preventing against heart attacks. Then more recent studies have contradicted that,” he said.

Hsu argues this can make it difficult for the average person to understand risks concerning alcohol and heart health.

“There are data to support small to moderate amounts of alcohol being good for the heart, but this is regarding coronary artery disease,” he said.

“I think it is quite confusing for the everyday American to understand the risk of alcohol with specific heart conditions,” he added. “Alcohol has risks, and they are specific to certain types of heart conditions.”

Narayan said if a person is in doubt about their alcohol consumption and heart health, they should drink in moderation or not at all.

“What we normally recommend is people keep their alcohol intake between 2 to 7 units per week,” he said. “And in that range, most studies would agree the risks are possibly outweighed by the benefits or at least balanced.”

“We don’t have enough data to recommend alcohol,” he explained. “We could not recommend it because it’s never been shown that taking alcohol… actually extends life.”

“We should always drink in moderation, if at all,” Narayan added. “People who don’t drink should not be encouraged to. People who already drink should be encouraged to restrict their alcohol consumption more than we used to consider. If they drink a very small amount they should not be alarmed… because the risks of the study are mixed, but they should realize this is a potential risk in some people.”