A drink a day: The effects of alcohol intake on blood pressure

Have you ever wondered why that flushed feeling courses through you after a glass of your favourite wine? Or why your heart races slightly faster with each sip of a cold beer? The relationship between alcohol and blood pressure has long been established, but many people are still unsure about the potential dangers.

But why does alcohol increase blood pressure? And can you drink a “safe” amount to help you avoid complications?

In this blog, we will delve deep into the scientific research surrounding the effects of alcohol on blood pressure, the current guidelines for responsible drinking and the often blurred lines between moderate drinking and addiction.

How does alcohol increase blood pressure?

Alcohol’s relationship with blood pressure is layered and multifaceted. While it’s clear that alcohol can influence blood pressure levels, the magnitude and nature of this relationship hinge on various elements like consumption quantity, the timespan of consumption, and the individual’s unique physiology.

Short-term effects

Moderate alcohol consumption often results in an initial drop in blood pressure for the first twelve hours, followed by an increase afterwards. While this elevation is temporary, if a person drinks regularly or even daily, it can predispose them to long-term cardiovascular complications. However, if it is a case of rare heavy drinking, once the immediate effects of alcohol wear off, blood pressure often returns to its prior levels (unless there is another underlying condition).

Long-term effects

It is important to note, however, that regular alcohol consumption doesn’t have to be in excessive amounts to influence blood pressure. Even moderate but consistent alcohol intake can increase the body’s default blood pressure. With time, this sustained elevated pressure becomes the new “normal,” predisposing the person to hypertension. Hypertension, or persistently high blood pressure, is a silent harbinger of multiple ailments, including heart disease, strokes and kidney dysfunction.

Hypertension Complications Graphic
Image Credit – CDC)

Why does alcohol affect blood pressure?

The ways in which alcohol exerts its hypertensive effects are manifold, rooted in both direct physiological responses and indirect influences. Here’s a deeper exploration:

Sympathetic nervous system activation

Consuming alcohol can stimulate our body’s “fight or flight” system (the sympathetic nervous system). This activation results in the release of stress-related hormones, notably adrenaline. Elevated adrenaline levels induce an increase in heart rate and cause blood vessels to constrict, both of which culminate in a rise in blood pressure.

Alteration in cellular function

At the microscopic level, chronic alcohol consumption can meddle with the normal functioning of our blood vessel cells. This interference can lead to reduced flexibility and more constriction of the blood vessels. Constricted vessels offer more resistance to the flow of blood, which in turn boosts blood pressure levels.

Effect on renin

Our kidneys release an enzyme called renin, which plays a pivotal role in the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. This system has the crucial job of maintaining our blood pressure and body’s salt-water balance. Alcohol can disrupt this system, leading to fluid retention and vascular tone imbalances, which drive blood pressure upwards.

Interaction with medications

Those on medications, particularly antihypertensives meant to control blood pressure, should be cautious. Alcohol can alter the metabolism and effectiveness of these drugs, making them less efficacious. This renders the treatment ineffective and poses risks of uncontrolled blood pressure spikes or other side effects.

A summary of the effects of moderate drinking on blood pressure

Aspect Effect on Blood Pressure Notes
Short-term Consumption Temporary spike Blood pressure can increase shortly after drinking but typically returns to baseline after the effects of alcohol subside.
Long-term Moderate Drinking Sustained elevation Regular  consumption can recalibrate the body’s default blood pressure upward.
Cellular Function Blood vessels may constrict more Reduced flexibility in blood vessels leads to higher blood pressure.
Sympathetic Nervous System Temporary rise due to stress hormone release Elevated levels of hormones like adrenaline an increase heart rate and blood pressure.
Renin-Angiotensin System Altered fluid retention & vascular tone Disruption can lead to imbalances contributing to hypertension.
Medication Interactions Reduced medication efficacy Alcohol can interfere with blood pressure medications, reducing their effectiveness.

NHS drinking guidelines

The NHS provides guidelines for alcohol consumption that aim to reduce the risks associated with drinking, including blood pressure issues. These guidelines have been developed after rigorous research and offer a clearer understanding of what ‘safe’ or ‘low-risk’ drinking looks like.

Key recommendations

  • Regular drinking limit: Both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week regularly. Staying within this limit is associated with a low risk of illnesses linked to alcohol, such as liver disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. It also considers the potential impact on blood pressure and the risks of hypertension.
  • Spread out consumption: If you consume as much as 14 units a week, it is also advised to spread this consumption over three days or more. Constantly drinking 14 units over a single day or even over the weekend poses a significant health risk.
  • Alcohol-free days: Spreading out consumption means that it is recommended to have several alcohol-free days each week. These breaks can prevent habit formation and help the body recover from any alcohol consumed.
  • Abstaining from alcohol when pregnant: The safest approach for pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy is not to drink alcohol, ensuring the baby’s health isn’t compromised.

How much alcohol is 14 units?

To give a clearer picture of what 14 units look like, here are some common drinks and how many constitute the weekly limit:

  • Beer and lager: Roughly six pints of average-strength beer or lager (4% alcohol by volume).
  • Wine: Around one and a third bottles of standard-strength wine (12% alcohol by volume). Ten 125ml glasses.
  • Spirits: Approximately 14 single measures (25ml each) of distilled spirits like vodka, whiskey, rum or gin (40% alcohol by volume).

Remember, these are guidelines, and individual reactions to alcohol can vary. Some people may be more susceptible to its effects and may need to drink even less than these recommended amounts.

Want to calculate how many units of alcohol you are drinking each week? Click the orange box for AlcoholChange.Org’s unit calculator.

Alcohol bottles

The fine line between moderate drinking and addiction

Moderate drinking can often be a slippery slope. Some individuals might start with a daily drink and gradually increase their intake, leading to excessive drinking and alcohol addiction. To prevent these risks, it’s essential to recognise the signs of alcohol addiction as early as possible:

  • Increased tolerance: Needing more alcohol to feel its effects.
  • Loss of control: Unable to control or cut down on drinking.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Experiencing nausea, sweating, or shakiness when not drinking.
  • Neglecting responsibilities: Favouring alcohol over work, family, or other obligations.
  • Compulsive drinking: Continuing to drink alcohol even though it is causing problems in your life
  • Physical health issues: These include high blood pressure, fatigue, sleep issues and weight gain.

Alcohol rehab: The best solution for alcohol addiction

When moderate drinking spirals into addiction, the implications are not limited to blood pressure. Alcohol rehab centres, such as the ones provided by UKAT, play a pivotal role in aiding recovery and helping to reverse the physical, mental and social repercussions.

The focus of alcohol rehab is not only to break the cycle of addiction but also to equip individuals with tools to manage triggers and lead a balanced life. Alcohol rehab experts understand the multifaceted nature of addiction and the underlying causes, be it trauma, stress or co-existing mental health disorders. Alcohol rehab offers a structured environment for detoxification, therapy, counselling and long-term recovery strategies, all crucial for achieving and maintaining sobriety.

Final Thoughts

While there’s a place for moderate alcohol consumption in many cultural and social settings, it’s essential to be aware of the implications on blood pressure and overall health. Regular monitoring, understanding your body and recognising the signs of excessive drinking is crucial. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, consider seeking professional guidance by contacting us today. Remember, while a drink a day may seem harmless, its effects on blood pressure, overall health and every other aspect of your life can be very real.

Click here to see works cited

close help
Who am I contacting?

Calls and contact requests are answered by admissions at

UK Addiction Treatment Group.

We look forward to helping you take your first step.

0203 553 9263