It’s well known that drinking too much alcohol has numerous side effects, many of them bad. These include weight gain, liver damage, and a suppressed immune system. But did you know that excessive drinking can also raise your blood pressure—leading to a potentially dangerous condition known as hypertension?
Below, we’ll discuss the relationship between alcohol and high blood pressure, and what you can do to keep yourself safe.
Does Alcohol Affect Blood Pressure?
To begin with, yes, drinking alcohol can affect your blood pressure. Although less widely known than alcohol’s other effects, hypertension from chronic alcohol use has been investigated since the 1980s.
The impact of alcohol on blood pressure seems to depend on how much, and how often you drink. For example, alcohol can raise your blood pressure in one night of binge drinking—but this generally drops back to normal as the alcohol leaves your system. Light to moderate drinking (1-2 drinks a day) may even lower blood pressure slightly in some individuals.
Regular, heavy drinking, however, is shown to cause chronic high blood pressure in many people. And this condition—known as hypertension— can bring about several complications in the long term. These include greater risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and an overall shorter lifespan.
How Does Alcohol Cause High Blood Pressure?
What is the relationship between alcohol and high blood pressure? Each person is unique, and research is ongoing, but there are several ways alcohol may raise your blood pressure:
- Alcohol acts on baroreceptors, tiny sensors in your blood vessels that detect blood pressure by measuring tension against the artery walls. (For comparison, think about how a barometer measures air pressure.) By inhibiting baroreceptors, your brain gets tricked into thinking your blood pressure is lower than it is, and orders your heart to raise it.
- Alcohol interferes with the renin system, one of the hormone pathways in your kidneys. This can increase the release of angiotensin, which constricts blood vessels. It can also raise aldosterone, a hormone that regulates the amount of salt in your blood. This in turn increases the amount of liquid in your bloodstream. Constricted vessels, plus higher volume, means higher pressure.
- Drinking can raise levels of cortisol, a hormone that regulates your body’s stress response. Cortisol raises your heart rate, contracts your blood vessels, and signals your liver to release sugar (mostly glucose) into the bloodstream. Each of these can also increase your blood pressure.
Often, hypertension from alcohol is also influenced by other unhealthy habits, which may go along with excessive drinking. These risk factors include poorer nutrition, lack of exercise, and smoking. Chronic stress may also be a factor that causes both problem drinking and high blood pressure.
Because of this, it’s not always easy to pinpoint whether alcohol is the exact cause of hypertension. But one thing is clear—drinking less can lower your chances.
Managing Hypertension from Alcohol Use
If you have high blood pressure and you think alcohol might be a main cause, there are several things you can do to manage the condition.
The first, of course, is to reduce how much you drink. Cutting back or quitting alcohol can reduce some of the pressure on your system.
It’s important to point out, however, that initial alcohol withdrawal can aggravate the problem. And if underlying stress is a reason why you often drink, that will remain a major factor. Adapting to drinking less alcohol may therefore pose its own challenges.
When cutting back on alcohol to manage hypertension, you should start by talking to your doctor about the best strategy. Consider what actions you can take to reduce overall stress in your life—whether that’s starting a mindfulness practice, shifting some priorities, or beginning therapy. It might also be best to quit or cut back gradually, to avoid putting your body through additional strain.
Aside from drinking less and reducing stress, there are some overall lifestyle changes that can help—regardless of why you have high blood pressure. These include being more physically active, quitting smoking, losing weight, and incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Reducing the amount of salt you consume is also especially important.
Finally, in more extreme cases, there are medications that can help with hypertension. As always, talk to your doctor about the best way to manage your condition, and rebalance your system.
Help for Cutting Back on Alcohol
If you find that it’s hard to reduce your alcohol consumption on your own, there are new ways of getting help. Ria Health’s online program gives you access to anti-craving medication, weekly coaching meetings, digital tools, and much more—all from an app on your smartphone. Best of all, we support moderation as an option, so you don’t need to quit completely if you don’t want to.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Hypertension. Accessed January 18, 2021.