Binge Drinking Leads to Dangerous Heart Arrhythmias


Here’s a study that gives new meaning to your heart being a flutter while drunk — and it’s not about beer goggles.

In a rather unique study, German researchers gathered data from those imbibing at Oktoberfest. Over 16 days, they measured blood alcohol levels and performed electrocardiograms for more than 3,000 people.

Oktoberfest is a 16-day celebration of all things beer. Credit: Club Transatlântico/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The study was published in European Heart Journal. researchers said they discovered a “profound association of acute alcohol consumption with sinus tachycardia,” which is when your heart beats really fast for no good reason.

Doctors have known for some time that excessive alcohol intake can be damaging to the heart. Stories about a glass of wine a day — red wine, specifically — being heart healthy have sent the wrong message to some people.

While the association between alcohol and tachycardia is not new, the researchers wanted to know what inside the body causes it.  They found that the more alcohol a person drank, the less likely their breathing rate would change with their heart rate, which is what usually happens.

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“Holiday Heart Syndrome” is a condition where people who binge drink suffer atrial fibrillation, or A fib, which can be dangerous.

In this form of arrhythmia, the heart’s upper, or atrial, chambers shudder weakly but do not contract,” according to the National Institutes of Health. “Blood can collect and even clot in these upper chambers. If a blood clot travels from the heart to the brain, a stroke can occur; if it travels to other organs such as the lungs, an embolism, or blood vessel blockage, occurs.”

The other type of arrhythmia is tachycardia. “Electrical signals travel throughout the heart’s muscles, triggering contractions that keep blood flowing at the right pace,” the NIH explains. “Alcohol-induced damage to heart muscle cells can cause these electrical impulses to circle through the ventricle too many times, causing too many contractions.”

With the contractions being so quick, the heart does not fill with enough blood so it is not distributed properly in the body.

Related: ‘Drinking Gene’ Could Determine Why Some People Binge

According to the National Institutes of Health, long-term drinking also causes alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening of the heart muscle to the degree that it cannot do its job effectively. Other cardiovascular problems brought on by drinking including high blood pressure, also known as “the silent killer.”

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Moritz Sinner, one of the researchers, said a limitation of the study is that the ECGs only provided 30 seconds of heart data at a time because they were portable and attached to cell phones. “We don’t know what happens to them two hours or 12 hours later.”

Sinner told NPR he and his research team plan to study that in a follow-up paper.

“Frankly, I do drink alcohol and I like it,” Sinner told NPR. “But you need to put a limit on it. The more you drink, the more prominent the findings (of the heart study) are. So, it’s probably not a problem if you go drink a beer or two. But if you exaggerate it, it’s certainly not healthy anymore.”