This month, learn about alcohol and heart health

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It’s not unusual to see a lot of red in February, often in conjunction with heart designs. This is especially fitting as, in addition to hosting the Valentine’s Day holiday, February is also designated as American Heart Month. This month is a time to learn about and appreciate the tremendous impact the heart has on one’s overall health, as well as the lifestyle factors that can either promote a healthy heart or risk complications. As heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, the importance of hearth health can’t be overstated. While most of the conversations on cardiovascular health center on diet and exercise, the abuse of many drugs and even alcohol should not be overlooked, as they can have a profound impact on how your heart functions.

When it comes to substance use, the role of alcohol on heart health is perhaps the most misunderstood, as well as the most confusing. It is generally accepted that moderate alcohol use could potentially carry benefits for some individuals. The raising of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and the ability to deter blood clotting are often cited as possible benefits of alcohol. The key here, however, is “moderate” drinking, which is defined as one drink a day for women and two for men, equivalent to five ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer at about four percent alcohol content. Anything above that can bring about a number of health consequences, such as an increase in blood pressure and cardiomyopathy — in which your heart muscle becomes diseased. Binge drinking, consuming four to five drinks within a short amount of time, can cause arrhythmias, or irregular heart rhythms. These effects can also be exacerbated in individuals with existing heart conditions, such as high blood pressure or a history of heart failure.

Many illegal drugs, as well as some prescription drugs, can be classified as stimulants and pose very real dangers to your cardiovascular system when abused. These stimulants act to increase your heart rate, stimulate your sympathetic nervous system and activate your body’s “fight or flight response”. This can cause irregular hormone levels in the blood, put you at risk for a heart attack, narrow blood vessels, and pose a great risk for irregular heartbeat. This is especially true of cocaine, which has been dubbed the “heart attack drug” by many, with its intense stimulant effects combined with the increased risk of blot clotting. Similar heart attack concerns are also found with Amphetamines and “party drugs” such as MDMA.

Emerging research is also indicating that marijuana, which has both depressant and stimulant effects, can increase heart attack risk. Specifically, a recent study found marijuana weakening the heart muscles, leaving users with more risk of cardiac issues than nonusers. New studies are finding heart risks associated with nicotine as well, even used outside of tobacco. Nicotine can damage blood vessels, changing the structure of the cells such that plaque can more easily form, certainly calling in to question the safety of products with heavy nicotine concentrations, such as e-cigarettes and other vaporizers.

A healthy heart is critical to a healthy life. This month, when reflecting on your heart and what you can do to protect it, be sure to consider the effects that all substances can have on it.

• Jeffrey Meyers is an ASAC prevention specialist in Cedar Rapids. Comments: jmeyers@asac.us

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