Alcohol directly influences excitation of myocytes (cardiac muscle cells), and therefore provokes arrhythmias and possibly, sudden cardiac death. So in short, alcohol can cause a heart attack when it is consumed in large amounts. In addition, excessive long-term use of alcohol can increase the risk of developing an array of heart problems which may also lead to a heart attack. This is because drinking alcohol at this level can:
- Raise blood pressure, which is one of the most important risk factors for having a heart attack or a stroke as it damages the heart by hardening and thickening arteries.
- Weaken the heart muscle, which means the heart can’t pump blood as efficiently. It’s known as cardiomyopathy which is a condition when the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick or rigid, and in rare cases, the muscle tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This condition can cause premature death, usually through heart failure.1
- Increase the heart rate due to problems in the electrical signals that produce a heartbeat. It’s known as tachycardia (increased heart rate). 2,3 Complications due to regular episodes of tachycardia, do vary depending on their frequency, length, and severity, but it can cause blood clots which often lead to a heart attack or stroke.4
- Cause irregular heartbeat, which is known as a condition called arrhythmia. Arrhythmias can occur because of changes to the heart’s electrical system, which is often caused by blocked signals, abnormal pathways, irritable heart cells, medicines, and stimulants such as alcohol. Some of the common arrhythmias include the heart beating too slow (bradycardia), or too fast (tachycardia).5 Arrhythmias can cause cardiac arrest and stroke.
- Cause atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) is a heart condition that makes the heartbeat really fast and off-rhythm. Sometimes referred to as ‘holiday heart’ these disturbances were found to be more frequent after weekends or holidays like Christmas or New Year’s which are known to have higher alcohol consumption.6 AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart conditions.
- Cause weight gain which in return causes the blood pressure and cholesterol to rise also increasing the risk of developing heart disease.
Binge Drinking Can Make the Heart Beat Irregularly
The name Holiday Heart Syndrome (HHS) was coined in 19787 by Philip Ettinger, for describing the occurrence of an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance in apparently healthy people after an episode of heavy drinking, leaving no cardiac disturbance with subsequent abstinence, leaving no indication of heart disease. HHS gets its name because the condition tends to increase around holiday times or after weekends when people tend to drink more8.
Individuals experiencing cardiac disturbance (AF), feel breathless as the blood pressure rise. In fact, people feel like they might be having a heart attack – characterized by severe pain in the center of the chest.
According to the US National Library of Medicine AF, is the most frequent cardiac arrhythmia in HHS, and it has shown to be a major risk factor for stroke and increased mortality, indirectly suggesting an association between HHS and stroke or death, which may explain some of the sudden death cases commonly reported in alcoholics.
(1) British Heart Foundation website. Dilated cardiomyopathy. Available at:
(2) Shi, P., Chen, Y., Guo, M., & Yu, H. (2014). acute effects of alcohol on heart rate variability: Time-related changes and gender difference. Biomedical Engineering Applications, Basis and Communications, 26(3), np-np. doi:10.4015/S1016237214500483
(3) 7 Buckman, J. F., Eddie, D., Vaschillo, E. G., Vaschillo, B., Garcia, A., & Bates, M. E. (2015). Immediate and complex cardiovascular adaptation to an Acute alcohol dose. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(12), 2334-2344. doi:10.1111/acer.12912
(5) National Heart Foundation. Arrithymias. Retrieved from – http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/Arrhythmias.pdf
(6). Tonelo, D., Providencia, R., & Goncalves, L., (2013). Holiday Heart Syndrome Revisited after 34 years, 101(2)., 183-18/9
(7) Menz V, Grimm W, Hoffmann J, Maisch B. PubMed,1996 ‘Alcohol and rhythm disturbance: the holiday heart syndrome’, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 227-31. Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8805002
(8) Ettinger PO, Wu CF, De La Cruz C, Weisse AB, Ahmed SS, Regan TJ (May 1978),. ‘”Arrhythmias and the “Holiday Heart”: alcohol-associated cardiac rhythm disorders’”,. Am. Heart Journal. Available at:
Dr. Balta is the Medical Director at FCR for more than 10 years. Dr. Balta is Board Certified in Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, Certified Psychoanalyst. As well, as having Psychiatric Training at The Albert Einstein School of Medicine Psychiatric Residency Program In New York City and Psychoanalytic Training at The William Alanson White Institute in New York City. While working in New York City, gained funding Grants for the treatment of Substance Abuse Disorders from SAMHSA , HRSA and the City of New York.