Written on October 5, 2023 by Lori Mulligan, MPH. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Does alcohol raise cholesterol? The answer depends on how much you drink. As you’ll see, moderation is key.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
With high cholesterol, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes, those deposits can break suddenly and form a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.
High cholesterol can be inherited, but it's often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, which make it preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and sometimes medication can help reduce high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is carried through your blood, attached to proteins. This combination of proteins and cholesterol is called lipoprotein. There are different types of cholesterol based on what the lipoprotein carries. They are :
Much of the alcohol that flows into your system after tipping back a glass finds its way to your liver for a digestive after-party. Alcohol is broken down in your liver and reconstructed as cholesterol and triglycerides.
The more you drink, the more your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides rise. As you might imagine, high levels of either type of this waxy fat are not exactly desirable for managing cholesterol or optimal health.
Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol. Consider this advice from the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.”
So where’s that line? The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, advises that adults of legal drinking age should limit alcohol intake to two drinks or fewer in a day for men and one drink or fewer in a day for women.
This is not meant as a daily average or target, either. Instead, consider it more of a boundary on any given day when you might choose to have an alcoholic beverage.
It’s important to define what a “drink” means, too, as not all alcohol is the same. A standard alcoholic drink is typically defined as :
Some studies have shown an association between moderate alcohol intake and a lower risk of dying from heart disease.
But it’s hard to determine cause and effect from those studies. Perhaps people who sip red wine have higher incomes, which tend to be associated with more education and greater access to healthier foods. Similarly, red wine drinkers might be more likely to eat a heart-healthy diet.
There is some evidence that moderate amounts of alcohol might help to slightly raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Researchers have also suggested that red wine, in particular, might protect the heart thanks to the antioxidants it contains.
But you don’t have to pop a cork to reap those benefits. Exercise can also boost HDL cholesterol levels, and antioxidants can be found in other foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grape juice.
A study published online on March 25, 2022, by JAMA Network Open found the general lifestyle habits of moderate drinkers — and not the drinking itself — were responsible for the group's lower risk for cardiovascular disease.
Researchers looked at 371,463 adults who consumed an average of nine standard alcoholic drinks per week. Weekly intake of one to eight drinks was deemed light; 8.5 to 15 drinks, moderate; and 15.5 to 24.5, heavy.
Consistent with earlier studies, the light and moderate drinkers had the lowest heart disease risk (even better than people who abstained from drinking). Yet, the researchers did not find evidence that alcohol specifically helped to lower blood pressure, total cholesterol, triglycerides, or C-reactive protein levels—all common markers for cardiovascular disease risk. This implied that something else was responsible.
Looking closer, the research team found that as a group, light to moderate drinkers had healthier habits than abstainers. In general, they were more physically active, ate more vegetables and less red meat, and didn't smoke. And their body mass index was lower overall.
Measure cholesterol and lipid levels to help optimize your heart health. This cholesterol and lipids at-home lab test is similar to a standard lipid panel. Biomarkers measured include total cholesterol, calculated LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. This cholesterol test is for anyone who is monitoring their cholesterol or who is interested in learning about their current levels. It’s a convenient cholesterol screening that gives you easy-to-understand results for three key measures of cholesterol, as well as triglycerides.
Concerned about your cholesterol? Arrange a video call with a licensed clinician. These clinicians make it simple for you to address your health needs with high-quality care, prescriptions, and recommendations.