Can a few drinks after work affect your cholesterol? Although alcohol is filtered through your liver, the same place where cholesterol is made, its effect on your heart health really depends on how often and how much you drink.
Cholesterol and alcohol
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that’s produced by your body, but you also get it from food. One type of cholesterol, called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, builds up on the inside of your arteries and forms plaque. This plaque can restrict blood flow to other parts of your body, and the blockages or pieces of plaque that dislodge could result in a heart attack or stroke.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), your total cholesterol level should ideally be below 200 mg/dL. Anything over 240 mg/dL is considered high. LDL cholesterol should be below 100 mg/dL. “Good” cholesterol, also known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), should be higher than 60 mg/dL. Triglycerides are another form of fat in your blood that contribute to your total cholesterol. As with LDL cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides raise your risk of heart disease.
Because your body produces all that you need, you don’t need to get cholesterol from your diet. However, your diet can play a major role in elevated cholesterol numbers. Fortunately, alcohol doesn’t contain any cholesterol — at least in the pure forms of beer, wine, and liquor. However, what you mix with it, and how much and how often you drink, can influence your heart health.
Beer and cholesterol
Beer doesn’t contain cholesterol. But it does contain carbohydrates and alcohol, and these substances can cause a rise in your triglyceride levels.
You’ll also find plant sterols in beer. These are compounds that bind to cholesterol and usher it out of the body. But before you think of this as proof that beer is good for your cholesterol, think again. Research shows that sterol levels in your average cold one are so low that even a whole-grain beer doesn’t have enough to positively affect cholesterol.
Liquor and cholesterol
Hard liquor, such as whiskey, vodka, and gin, is also cholesterol-free. However, some concoctions, such as the new trend of candy-flavored whiskeys, may contain extra sugars, which can affect cholesterol levels. The same is true for other cocktails and mixed drinks, which often include ingredients with high sugar content. Both alcohol and sugar can increase triglyceride levels.
Wine and cholesterol
Wine has the best reputation out of all alcoholic beverages when it comes to the adult heart. This is thanks to a plant sterol known as resveratrol that’s found in red wine. According to research, resveratrol may help reduce inflammation and prevent clotting in the short term. This can contribute to increased levels of “good” cholesterol.
Resveratrol’s positive effects, however, are not long-lasting. More research is needed to support the idea that this plant sterol reduces risk for heart complications.
How much and how often you drink matters
Even though beer, liquor, and wine all have different effects on your cholesterol levels, your heart is more affected by the amount and frequency of your drinking than it is by your choice of beverage.
Moderate drinking, which the NIH defines as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, is the amount of alcohol considered to have a protective effect on the heart. Large studies have shown that moderate drinkers were significantly less likely to have a heart attack when compared with people who didn’t drink at all. And men who drank every day had a lower risk compared to those who drank once or twice a week.
Research shows that moderate alcohol consumption can raise your “good” cholesterol levels by increasing the speeds at which proteins are transported through the body. Drinking more than what is considered moderate, however, has an opposite effect, because it can raise both cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
How safe it is for you to drink depends on many factors, which you should discuss with your doctor. But if your doctor gives you the thumbs-up to have a drink or two, keep the following in mind.
The jury is still out on which alcoholic beverage is best for your cholesterol. But when it comes to how much and how often you should drink, there’s a clear-cut winner: Mild to moderate drinking is better for keeping your cholesterol — and your heart — healthy.