Acolhol and Blood Pressure

In 1967, a study entitled “The Los Angeles Heart Study” established a clear link between alcohol consumption and high blood pressure. As alcohol consumption increases, so does blood pressure.

This un-equivocal relationship between long-term alcohol consumption and high blood pressure has been confirmed in study after study. In fact, the Harvard Medical School Health Letter estimates that alcohol consumption accounts for at least 5 percent and possibly as much as 25 percent of high blood pressure!

Now, don’t get the idea that everyone who has a cocktail in the evening or a glass of wine at dinner will develop high blood pressure. That’s not the point. It’s not the occasional drink; it’s regular drinking.

About four cans of beer, two or more glasses of wine, or three drinks with one ounce of liquor on a daily basis is enough to cause high blood pressure in many individuals. Conversely, the same research indicates that one alcoholic drink daily (one beer, one glass of wine, or one cocktail) will not cause high blood pressure in most people.

If you drink moderately, you’ll likely have no problem. After one of my lectures on reducing high blood pressure, I got the following letter about a month later from Charlie, a man in Colorado. Dear Dr. Scala: I’ve been following the advice you gave at your lecture in Denver.

I’ve reduced my weight, stopped smoking, and have been taking potassium supplements with no results. The letter went on to describe that his doctor had prescribed the potassium supplements. Since the doctor’s prescription conflicted with what I advise, a call was in order.

Boy, did I get a different picture. Charlie had indeed lost 10 pounds, but at 210 pounds, he was still 35 pounds overweight for his five-foot eleven-inch frame. And he had retained all his bad habits. He faithfully drank three to five ounces of Tennessee sipping whiskey each evening and had sliced beef with gravy for lunch.

His doctor, in an effort to follow my program, had prescribed potassium in the belief that if he restored Charlie’s K-factor, it would compensate for his poor dietary habits. But he didn’t quite get the K-factor message; you don’t simply add potassium.

I called the doctor and we set up a simple plan: no more whiskey and a good weight-loss program that followed the dietary rules to restore potassium-sodium balance. Within a week, Charlie’s diastolic reading was below 90.

Two months later, his weight was down to 195. His blood pressure was still high at 135/85, but he didn’t require medication. Charlie also learned something that other regular drinkers don’t learn: If he starts the booze again, his blood pressure immediately goes up.

High blood pressure from excessive alcohol is not good; the only way to reverse it is to stop drinking. Drugs that usually work for high blood pressure don’t usually work for drinkers. So, the only solution is to “get off the sauce,” or at least reduce it to one drink daily.

Much is known about how alcohol affects the body, but no one is sure how it elevates blood pressure. We can speculate on two possible mechanisms, however. Some specialists believe that it directly influences the hormones that either elevate or reduce blood pressure.

The hormones that elevate blood pressure are overproduced, and the organs don’t get the signal to stop. That would explain why medication does not affect alcohol-related high blood pressure. It also explains why blood pressure returns to normal when the booze stops.

Alcohol also alters the potassium-sodium-calcium-magnesium balance in the fluid within and surrounding the cells. This causes constriction of the capillaries with an increase of the peripheral resistance, and high blood pressure follows.

If you’re like Charlie, stop drinking! It’s that simple. Under any circumstances, if there’s even a hint that your elevated blood pressure is alcohol-related, stop! Try reducing your alcohol intake to no more than a glass of wine or one mixed drink daily.

But if your blood pressure remains above normal at that level, you should stop altogether. Remember, alcohol has negative effects on your body besides high blood pressure.

If it’s elevating your blood pressure, it’s reducing the quality and quantity of your life in many other ways. Only you can do anything about it; and the only thing to do is stop!