Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol… it can be confusing, especially when health trends quickly change between what’s good and bad for you. More than 90 million Americans have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Not only does your body make cholesterol, but it’s also found in many foods (and drinks) you enjoy the most. (1)
While knowing what’s acceptable when it comes to cholesterol can be tricky, there’s one thing we have no doubts about — the harmful effects alcohol has on the body.
But you may wonder: Does alcohol raise cholesterol?
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol, a waxy substance with a texture similar to fat, is essential in every cell of your body. (2) Its significance stems from its various roles, contributing to your body’s overall functioning and heart health. (3)
Cholesterol serves various purposes:
- Hormone Production: It is the building block for creating hormones like estrogen and testosterone, crucial for various bodily functions, including reproduction and overall well-being.
- Vitamin Synthesis: Cholesterol is involved in synthesizing vitamin D, a vital nutrient that supports bone health, the immune system, and many other functions. (4)
- Digestion Aid: The liver produces cholesterol, which is then utilized by the body to create substances that facilitate the digestion process.
While cholesterol is undeniably important, it is worth noting that your body can manufacture adequate cholesterol, meaning you do not necessarily need to obtain it from your diet.
Excessive cholesterol consumption from food can be detrimental to your health. Maintaining a balance and understanding the sources of cholesterol in your diet is key to promoting overall well-being.
Natural Sources of Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance in various animal and plant foods. Knowing these sources can help you make informed dietary choices and manage your cholesterol levels. (5)
The primary natural sources of cholesterol are:
- Animal Products: Animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products contain dietary cholesterol. For example, organ meats like liver and kidney are particularly high in cholesterol.
- Seafood: While fish is a healthy protein source, some types, like shrimp, lobster, and squid, have moderate to high cholesterol content.
- Dairy: Full-fat dairy products like whole milk, cheese, and butter contain cholesterol.
- Poultry: Poultry, such as chicken and turkey, contain cholesterol, especially in the skin and dark meat.
- Eggs: Egg yolks are well-known for their cholesterol content. However, it’s important to note that they also provide essential nutrients, making them a part of a balanced diet.
- Baked Goods: Pastries, cookies, and other baked goods often contain saturated and trans fats, which can contribute to higher cholesterol levels when consumed excessively.
Signs of High Cholesterol
If your doctor tells you you have high cholesterol, it means that higher levels of fats in your blood exceed 200 milligrams per deciliter (200 mg/dL). (6) (7) Soaring cholesterol levels are serious because they increase your risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function at tip-top shape. However, cholesterol and fat can’t dissolve in the blood. That means the body must store excess cholesterol and fat in tiny packages called lipoproteins.
Harvard University indicates that the most important lipoproteins include:
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) – carry “bad cholesterol” from the liver that can clog arteries
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL cholesterol) – scavenge for “good cholesterol” to carry back to the liver to be disposed
- Triglycerides – contain all fats that travel through the blood to cells (8)
These particles are covered in proteins and can mix with blood. They range in size, so they can be big and fluffy or small and dense. When plaque from LDL breaks apart, it can cause heart failure and strokes. In addition, high triglyceride levels can be unhealthy.
While high cholesterol doesn’t produce direct symptoms, it can lead to serious health issues if left unmanaged. These issues, rather than the cholesterol itself, may present symptoms. Some signs and complications associated with high cholesterol include:
- Chest Pain (Angina): High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis), reducing blood flow to the heart. This can cause chest pain or discomfort, known as angina. (9)
- Heart Attack: If an artery becomes completely blocked due to cholesterol plaque or a blood clot, it can lead to a heart attack and serious health problems. Common signs of a heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain radiating down the arm.
- Stroke: High cholesterol can also contribute to the narrowing of blood vessels in the brain. If a blood vessel becomes blocked or ruptures, it can result in a stroke. Signs of a stroke may include sudden numbness, weakness, or confusion.
- Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD): High cholesterol can affect blood vessels in the extremities, leading to PAD. Symptoms may include leg pain, numbness, or weakness. (10)
- Xanthomas: In some cases of severely high cholesterol, fatty deposits known as xanthomas can develop beneath the skin, usually around the eyes, on the elbows, or the knees.
How Does Alcohol Affect Cholesterol?
Alcohol consumption can have varying effects on total cholesterol levels. While moderate alcohol intake may have some benefits, excessive drinking can lead to harmful effects on cholesterol. The relationship between the amounts of alcohol one drinks and cholesterol depends on factors like the type and quantity of alcohol consumed, individual genetics, and overall lifestyle.
More information about this interaction can help individuals make informed choices about their alcohol consumption and its potential impact on cholesterol levels.
Different Types of Alcohol & Their Cholesterol Effects
Various types of alcoholic beverages exist, and each can have different effects or increased risks on cholesterol levels. While moderate alcohol consumption can sometimes have a beneficial impact on cholesterol, the relationship is complex and depends on several factors:
- Red Wine: Red wine, in moderation, is often associated with potential cardiovascular benefits. It contains antioxidants, such as resveratrol, which may positively influence cholesterol profiles. Some studies suggest that red wine might help raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. The key is moderation – excessive consumption can lead to negative health effects. (11)
- White Wine: White wine, similar to red wine, contains some antioxidants but typically to a lesser extent. The effects on cholesterol levels are not as well-established. As with all alcoholic beverages, moderation is essential.
- Beer: Moderate beer consumption may slightly raise HDL cholesterol levels, but excessive consumption can increase triglycerides, a type of blood fat linked to heart disease. Beer’s impact on cholesterol is generally less pronounced than that of wine.
- Spirits (e.g., Whiskey, Vodka): Hard liquor, such as whiskey, vodka, and other distilled spirits, does not have the same beneficial compounds as wine. Excessive alcohol intake can harm cholesterol, including increasing triglyceride levels. Moderation remains crucial for maintaining good cholesterol health.
- Cocktails: Cocktails often combine spirits with various mixers, some of which can be high in sugar and unhealthy fats. The choice of mixer and the quantity consumed can impact cholesterol. Opting for low-sugar mixers and controlling portions can help mitigate adverse effects.
- Liqueurs and Cream Liqueurs: These are often high in sugar and saturated fats, negatively affecting cholesterol levels. They should be consumed sparingly.
- Craft Beers and Specialty Alcoholic Drinks: These beverages can have a wide range of ingredients and alcohol content, making it essential to check their nutritional profiles. Some may contain high levels of both alcohol and calories, which can impact cholesterol.
Safe Alcohol Consumption & Cholesterol Management
The biggest influence on blood cholesterol levels is the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet—not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should limit the consumption of:
- Sugars: less than 10% of calories per day
- Saturated fat: less than 10% of calories per day
- Sodium: less than 2,300 milligrams per day
- Alcoholic beverages: two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women
Moderate amounts are suggested, but alcohol is high in sugars and offers little nutritional value. Also, heavy drinking can increase your level of cholesterol.
If you have any of the following apply to you, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol altogether:
- Medications that interact with alcohol
- Medical conditions made worse by drinking alcohol
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
- Pregnant or think you might be pregnant
- Older adults who need to drive, operate machinery, or participate in any activities requiring good coordination and alertness
How to Achieve and Maintain Healthy Cholesterol Levels
The easiest way to lower risks of high cholesterol when you’re told you have high levels of it is through your diet. We’ve already talked about the foods to avoid.
Harvard University lists the following foods as the best to help you maintain a healthier and lower cholesterol level.
- Oats (e.g., oatmeal, Cheerios)
- Whole grains (e.g., oats, oat bran, barley)
- Beans (e.g., navy beans, kidney beans, lentils, garbanzos, black-eyed peas, etc.)
- Eggplant and okra
- Nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, peanuts, etc.)
- Vegetable oils (e.g., canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil)
- Fruits (e.g., apples, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits)
- Sterols and stanols (e.g., granola bars, supplements, and other fortified foods)
- Soy (e.g., soybeans, soy milk, tofu)
- Fatty fish (e.g., tuna, salmon, sardines, halibut, swordfish)
- Fiber supplements (e.g., Metamucil)
There’s no miracle cure or medication to eliminate high cholesterol levels. It mostly comes down to diet and lifestyle changes to avoid coronary heart disease risk factors.
Prioritize Your Health: Get Help With Alcohol Use Disorder
Your body needs cholesterol for everything from producing vitamins and hormones to aiding digestion. Too much cholesterol obtained in the foods you eat can put you at a greater risk.
Drinking excess levels of alcohol can lead to various health conditions, whether from binge drinking or regular and frequent drinking. Heavy alcohol use can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
As a result, you could be at risk of developing long-term cardiovascular diseases such as arrhythmia and stroke, cancers such as breast cancer and colon cancer, liver disease, and so much more.
That’s why it’s vital to make heart-healthy diet choices and lifestyle changes that help you prevent and reverse the detrimental effects of drinking.
You may have high cholesterol and not even know it. If you’re a regular and heavy drinker, you could negatively impact your health even more. At Zinnia Health, we offer many treatment and healthcare options designed to help you overcome any substance abuse disorder. You can contact our alcohol and drug addiction hotline at (855) 430-9439 to learn more about our rehab programs.