38 percent of Americans suffer from high cholesterol, and many also consume large amounts of alcohol. Does alcohol increase cholesterol? While the two issues are not necessarily linked—smoking, diet, and exercise are also major factors—there does appear to be a connection between how much you drink and your cholesterol levels.
But is drinking always bad for your cholesterol? How much drinking is too much? Does alcohol raise cholesterol in every case, or could some types of alcohol actually be beneficial? Below, we’ll discuss the facts around cholesterol and alcohol, and how to keep a healthy balance.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates in the blood. It helps the body build cells and produce vitamins and hormones. The liver makes cholesterol. Cholesterol also comes from meat, eggs, cheese, and other animal products.
Since the liver produces all the cholesterol we need, any cholesterol we consume is extra. And since cholesterol can contribute to clogged arteries (and by extension, life-threatening problems like heart attack and stroke), it’s important to be aware of your cholesterol levels and how your diet might be affecting them.
Good Cholesterol vs. Bad Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol—one considered positive, and the other negative:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, LDL is the type that causes dangerous buildup in the arteries. People who consume large amounts of saturated and trans fats are more likely to have high LDL levels.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Considered “good” cholesterol, HDL protects the body by transporting LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver. The liver breaks down this bad cholesterol and flushes it from the body.
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What Qualifies As High Cholesterol?
In general, the following cholesterol levels are considered normal in healthy individuals:
- Total Cholesterol: Below 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
- LDL: Less than 130 mg/dL
- HDL: More than 40 mg/dL
Overall cholesterol above 240 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol at 160 mg/dL or above is considered high. LDL at 190 mg/dL or higher is considered very high. Such levels put people at risk for blood clots, chest pain, heart attack, and stroke.
How Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?
While alcohol itself doesn’t contain cholesterol, it can still impact your cholesterol levels in several ways. It can also affect a cholesterol test.
Alcohol is processed through your liver, which also makes and eliminates cholesterol. When you drink excessively, your liver focuses on getting rid of the alcohol and becomes less efficient at other tasks—including managing your cholesterol levels.
Once the alcohol is broken down in your liver, it’s rebuilt into cholesterol (the bad kind) and triglycerides. So the more you drink, the more cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your body increase.
Triglycerides–the most common type of fat stores in the body–are also linked to fatty buildup in the arteries. High triglyceride levels put you at risk for diabetes, pancreatitis, and stroke.
Your liver also processes fat and sugar more slowly when dealing with alcohol, leading to higher fat storage. The extra calories in many alcoholic drinks can worsen this problem, even contributing to fatty liver disease, further affecting how well you process cholesterol.
Overall, higher alcohol consumption—even occasional binge drinking—seems to increase lipid levels in the bloodstream and is generally not good for heart health. This is why the CDC recommends limiting alcohol to prevent high cholesterol.
Is Beer Bad for Cholesterol?
What about your choice of beverage? When it comes to alcohol and cholesterol, is beer worse than wine? Does beer raise cholesterol more?
Ultimately, it’s the quantity and frequency of drinking that has the biggest impact on your health—including your cholesterol. When it comes to beer and cholesterol, too much will certainly increase the presence of triglycerides in your body, along with the risk of fatty liver. Beer is high in carbohydrates and, of course, contains alcohol, and both can impact your cholesterol levels.
A few small studies have suggested that drinking beer in moderation (about one per day) is good for your cholesterol levels. The barley in beer does contain heart-healthy polyphenols. But more research is needed, and you’re probably better off eating straight whole grains than drinking beer to reduce your cholesterol.
What Happens If You Drink Alcohol with High Cholesterol?
So, what happens if you drink alcohol, and high cholesterol is already a problem for you?
Alcohol and high cholesterol don’t mix well. Drinking excessively will only make problems with high cholesterol worse. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute includes “limit alcohol” on their list of recommendations for lowering LDL cholesterol levels.
If you want to get high cholesterol under control, limiting or quitting alcohol is a helpful lifestyle change. Changing your drink habits will also benefit your liver and your blood pressure while helping you maintain a healthy weight–all factors that contribute to a healthy heart and a healthier life.
What Is the Best Alcohol to Drink to Lower Cholesterol?
While alcohol generally doesn’t have many health benefits, If there is a “best alcohol for cholesterol,” it’s red wine (in moderation). Some studies have suggested that red wine can actually increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels, due to chemicals called polyphenols. Red wine also contains natural plant chemicals, like resveratrol, that have antioxidant properties and can even help protect artery walls.
But when it comes to red wine and cholesterol, pouring a glass shouldn’t be viewed as a health tonic. The same beneficial compounds are available in ordinary grapes and other fruits such as blueberries. And, according to the American Heart Association, regular exercise is much more effective at raising HDL levels than drinking wine.
It is also difficult to determine whether drinking wine actually has any benefit. The CDC points out, “While some studies have found improved health outcomes among moderate drinkers, it’s impossible to conclude whether these improved outcomes are due to moderate alcohol consumption or other differences in behaviors or genetics between people who drink moderately and people who don’t.”
In other words, while small amounts of red wine (a glass or two a day) may not make your cholesterol worse, it shouldn’t be your go-to for balancing your LDL/HDL levels. There are healthier and more effective ways to regulate your cholesterol.
Alcohol Intake Recommendations for Healthy Cholesterol
We’ve mentioned that with alcohol and cholesterol, moderation is key. But what exactly is moderation?
According to the CDC, moderation is defined as one drink or less in a day for women and two drinks or less in a day for men. One standard drink of alcohol is 14 grams of pure alcohol, found in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of spirits.
Of course, this isn’t a target to aim for. It’s best to have some alcohol-free days, and most researchers still conclude that the safest amount of alcohol to drink is no alcohol at all.
Will Quitting Alcohol Lower Cholesterol?
If you have high cholesterol, quitting or cutting back on alcohol can certainly help lower it, and improve your heart health more generally. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control lists cutting back on alcohol as a way to prevent or manage high cholesterol.
Other ways to lower your cholesterol include getting regular exercise, eating a healthier diet, and quitting smoking. Of course, if you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels, we also recommend discussing your habits (including your alcohol use) with your doctor.
If cutting back on alcohol proves challenging, the good news is that there are easier, more flexible options than before. Ria Health offers online support to reduce or quit drinking from an app on your smartphone. We support everyone from heavy to occasional drinkers—you don’t need to identify as an alcoholic to join.
Learn more about how it works