38 percent of Americans suffer from high cholesterol, and many also consume large amounts of alcohol. 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.
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.
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How Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?
While alcohol itself doesn’t contain cholesterol, it can still affect your cholesterol levels in several ways.
To begin with, 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.
Your liver also processes fat and sugar more slowly when dealing with alcohol, leading to higher fat storage. Triglycerides—the most common type of fat stored in the body—are also linked to fatty buildup in the arteries. 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.
Is Alcohol Always Bad for Cholesterol?
So, does alcohol cause high cholesterol in every situation?
In excess, alcohol can be a factor in high cholesterol levels. But in moderation, alcohol is not always a bad thing. In fact, some studies suggest that red wine can actually increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels, due to chemicals called polyphenols.
It’s important to point out, however, that these 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.
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.
Is Beer Bad for Cholesterol?
What about your choice of beverage? When it comes to alcohol and cholesterol, is beer worse than wine?
Ultimately, it’s the quantity and frequency of drinking that has the biggest impact on your health—including your cholesterol. Beer contains both alcohol and carbohydrates, so too much beer will certainly increase the presence of triglycerides in your body and increase your risk of fatty liver.
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, like the grapes used to make wine, does contain heart-healthy polyphenols. But more research is needed, and once again you’re probably better off eating straight whole grains than drinking beer to reduce your cholesterol.
Will Quitting Alcohol Lower My 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.