Atrial Fibrillation and Alcohol

Although some alcohol consumption may help protect against heart disease, your heart may pay a price if you drink excessively. According to a recent study in the journal Circulation, heavy alcohol intake increases the risk of atrial fibrillation in men.

Researchers studied 16,415 men and women in Denmark, assessing their intake of beer, wine, and spirits with a questionnaire and performing electrocardiograms to check for the presence of atrial fibrillation (AFib).

No association was found between moderate alcohol use and AFib. But when alcohol intake reached a level of 35 or more drinks per week, men had a 45 to 63 percent increased risk of AFib, compared with men who consumed less than one drink per week.

An estimated 5 percent of the cases of AFib in the men were attributed to heavy alcohol consumption. There was no association between alcohol consumption and AFib in women, who rarely consumed the high levels of alcohol seen in some of the men.

The authors hypothesize that heavy alcohol intake may lead to AFib by affecting the structure and size of the heart or by promoting irregular heart rhythms in people predisposed to AFib. And some patients develop AFib after consuming even small amounts of alcohol.

Of course, alcohol consumption, especially heavy consumption, carries other health risks in addition to AFib, which is why experts recommend that, if you drink alcohol, you should have no more than one to two drinks a day.

Our advice: For some patients who are uniquely sensitive to alcohol, even one drink may trigger AFib. However, this is rare, and for most patients moderate levels of alcohol do not trigger or affect AFib. It is for this reason that we do not routinely tell all patients with AF to stop drinking alcohol.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.