You may not need to justify why you indulge in social lubricants, but the good news is that moderate consumption of alcohol affects your cholesterol levels by increasing the protective HDL type and lowering the harmful LDL type. However, if you overindulge in the vino or spirits, then your HDL levels are likely to drop, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
HDL is an abbreviation for high-density lipoprotein, which is a fatty compound that transports cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. HDL contains some cholesterol, but it’s actually a type of carrier and not really a type of cholesterol. HDL is the smallest of the lipoprotein carriers and responsible for transporting up to 30 percent of your blood cholesterol back to your liver for excretion or recycling. Thus, HDL is considered “good” because it tends to lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. HDL levels higher than 60 milligrams per deciliter of blood are ideal, whereas levels less than 40 milligrams are not healthy. In contrast, “bad” LDL tends to deposit cholesterol and fat on the inside walls of arteries, which increases the risk of blockage and heart problems.
Alcohol in Moderation
For alcohol to have a positive effect on blood cholesterol, women should limit their daily consumption to a maximum of one cocktail or glass of wine. At this amount, your HDL is more likely to remain at healthy levels and your LDL is unlikely to rise too high, but many other factors such as diet and lifestyle impact blood cholesterol levels. Alcohol also makes your blood “thinner,” which means less able to form clots. Drinking red wine has additional cardiovascular benefits because it’s rich in resveratrol – a powerful antioxidant able to prevent free radicals from damaging blood vessels and other tissues.
Too Much Alcohol
Overindulging in alcohol on a regular basis negatively impacts your health in numerous ways, including changing your blood cholesterol profile. Instead of helping to increase HDL levels, too much alcohol consumption reduces circulating HDL and increases the “bad” LDL. Excessive alcohol use also increases the amount of triglycerides circulating in your blood, which increases your risks of high blood pressure and weight gain. Furthermore, too much alcohol can make your blood too thin and lead to lots of broken blood vessels, bruising and spider veins.
Diets based on processed foods high in trans and saturated fats significantly reduce HDL levels, so it’s not just about the booze. Eat more fresh food, prepare most of your meals at home and limit your daily cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams. Regular exercise also raises HDL levels, so don’t forget about the gym. Incidentally, the American Heart Association defines one alcoholic drink as either 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor such as tequila. And you thought that small fishbowl filled with lime margarita counted as only one cocktail.
- Human Biochemistry; Charles Dreiling
- Public Health Nutrition: From Principles to Practice; Mark Lawrence and Tony Worsley
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.