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Alcohol And Blood Pressure: Does Drinking Increase or Lower BP?

Last Updated: October 26, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

What is the connection between alcohol and blood pressure (BP)? Ethanol use comes with a long list of health problems affecting every part of the body, from the central nervous system to the organs. The age-old connection between alcohol and hypertension has always been on the debate. Does alcohol raise blood pressure? What about the warnings against using ethanol for people with low BP? Does alcohol lower blood pressure? To elaborate on alcohol and hypertension, BP is a term used to determine the amount of force placed on artery walls during circulation. A range of factors can contribute to an unhealthy increase in this force, including excessive alcohol consumption. The relationship between alcohol and blood pressure is well-documented in various researches, and this article highlights the specific mechanism of alcohol blood pressure. Risks for hypertension (HBP) appear in people who participate in binge drinking and chronic heavy drinkers with diagnosable symptoms of alcoholism. In turn, anyone diagnosed with hypertension has heightened odds of developing some life-threatening health conditions.

Alcohol and High Blood Pressure Connection

The force of circulation puts a strain on the body’s arteries at all times. The force is generated while the heart actively beats, known as the systolic unit, while the pressure is generated while the heart rests between each beat, known as the diastolic unit. Doctors combine these two readings into a single measurement that resembles a fraction. The systolic reading forms the top half of the fraction, while the diastolic reading forms the bottom half. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that healthy adults typically have a maximum combined measurement of 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). Systolic and diastolic readings that exceed this threshold may indicate hypertension or a precursor condition called prehypertension. Does alcohol lower blood pressure or raises it?

Alcohol blood pressure may increase or decrease periodically depending on a constellation of reasons ranging from health status to physical activities. It is essential to understand the concept of alcohol blood pressure threshold to differentiate risk stages and normalcy. A BP threshold shows healthy systolic and diastolic states as well as stages of potential risk.

Here are Some BP Thresholds to Take Note of:

  • Lower than 120/80 mmHg – Normal BP
  • From 120/80 mmHg to 139/89 mmHg – at risk of high BP and prehypertension stage
  • From 130 to 139 mmHg (systolic) to 80-89 mmHg diastolic – the first stage of high BP
  • Exceeding 140/90 mmHg – the second stage of high BP
  • Higher than 180/120 mmHg – critical hypertension (urgent hospitalization)
Man measuring his blood pressure holding his head.

Does Alcohol Raise Blood Pressure?

Alcohol and blood pressure are tied in many ways. Excessive ethanol intake has a wide-ranging adverse effect on the cardiovascular system. This system includes the heart itself. As a functional organ, the heart contains arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to the body and the veins that carry oxygen-depleted plasma to the lungs for replenishment. Current evidence indicates that drinking has a direct impact on hypertension risks. However, scientists cannot fully explain the effects of ethanol on BP.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points to two possible causes for the connection between drinking and hypertension. Does alcohol raise blood pressure? First, the presence of alcohol may lead to the release of “fight-or-flight” hormones that make the body’s vessels may become narrow or constricted. Alternatively, ethanol’s presence may over stimulate the tiny muscles that line vessel walls and help maintain normal circulation.

The Dangers of Drinking are Excessive and Can Lead to High BP in Several Ways. Some of These Alcohol-Induced Health Risks Include:

  • Changes in the nervous system: The exact mechanism of ethanol influence on the nervous system and how it affects BP is not fully understood. However, much can be said about the impact of ethanol on the nervous system. Typically, the nervous system plays an important role in controlling BP.
  • Increased cortisol levels: Having more than a drink is often known to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol, however, is a hormone that increases BP in the body. This means that drinking increases BP through this medium.
  • Weight gain: ethanol contains empty calories with no particular nutritional value and often leads to an unprecedented increase in weight (obesity). Over time, the increase in weight gain influences an increase in BP.
  • Pressure receptors: ethanol affects the functions of pressure receptors, such as baroreceptors in the body. Baroreceptors are responsible for sensing BP receptors as well as making necessary changes to balance. When ethanol is in the system, the baroreceptors are put at work to increase the overall BP.
  • Vasoconstrictor hormone increase: Vasoconstrictors are hormones produced in the body that causes the narrowing of arteries and constricts the free flow of blood. Ethanol has been found to complement the actions of vasoconstrictor hormones, causing an increase in production. This leads to a significant increase in BP.
  • Increase in calcium levels: frequent drinking increases the calcium levels in the muscle lining of the arteries. This causes the constriction of arteries, which in turn increases BP.

The Threat of Alcohol Blood Pressure

As noted, anyone who participates in binge drinking can experience a significant increase in the amount of force placed on their arteries by blood circulation. Alcohol and high blood pressure are major problems in the U.S. Ethanol binging is extremely rampant in schools, workplaces, and others. Many people drink till intoxication or even poisoning. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 15 percent of all American adults binge drink at least once a week (i.e., four times per month). More than 9 in 10 heavy drinkers take part in this practice and increase their chances of developing clinical alcoholism. This is why alcohol and blood pressure issues are so frequent.

Causes of Alcohol Hypertension

People with limited involvement in binge drinking tend to experience only temporary symptoms of alcohol and blood pressure. When their blood ethanol levels fall back to normal, the heightened force placed on their arteries will dissipate, and their systolic and diastolic readings will return to normal. However, the situation can change in people who establish an ongoing pattern of ethanol binging. A once-temporary spike in pressure levels can turn into an ongoing case of prehypertension or hypertension in such circumstances.

In the long run, anyone who repeatedly drinks excessive alcohol amounts can develop diagnosable alcoholism (now part of a larger condition of alcohol and high blood pressure).

Alcohol Hypertension Risk Groups

One of the other known risks relating to alcohol and blood pressure is hypertension. This fact holds regardless of the presence or absence of other common risks for the condition, such as:

  • Gender
  • Racial/ethnic background
  • Advancing age
  • Habitual level of caffeine intake
  • Level of involvement in smoking
  • pregnancy

Since alcohol and high blood pressure are widespread in individuals of a certain race and ethnic group due to culture or way of life, consumption may remain high in people in the affected group, leading to the prevalence of excessive alcohol and hypertension as a societal norm.

Elderly man sharing complaints with doctor.

Symptoms and Complications of Alcohol-induced Hypertension

All long-term heavy drinkers run the risk of developing a specific form of high BP called portal hypertension. This condition occurs when pressure levels increase in a vessel called the portal vein, which channels blood to the liver from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the gallbladder, pancreas, and spleen. Portal hypertension does not produce any direct symptoms.

However, Its Effects Can Lead to Complications that Include:

  • A distended abdomen
  • Spleen enlargement
  • Varicose veins in the upper GI tract (esophagus and stomach)
  • Potentially heavy bleeding from damaged varicose veins in the upper GI tract

The underlying cause of portal hypertension in most chronic heavy drinkers is an advanced form of liver disease called cirrhosis. This condition occurs when scar tissue begins to replace the liver’s healthy cells. It typically appears after a decade or more of severe ethanol abuse.

System-wide hypertension can also lead to various severe and long-term health problems in anyone affected by alcoholism. Many of these problems appear in the cardiovascular system. For example, people with chronic high BP have increased chances of experiencing a coronary artery blockage followed by a heart attack. They also have increased chances of experiencing heart failure, a condition that occurs when the heart can no longer pump with enough force to meet the body’s requirements for oxygen-bearing blood.

Other Cardiovascular Conditions Linked to Hypertension Include:

  • Aneurysms (i.e., bulging weak spots in the wall of an artery)
  • Ischemic stroke (caused by blockages that interfere with the brain’s blood supply)
  • Hemorrhagic stroke (caused by ruptures in blood vessels that feed the brain)
  • Peripheral artery disease (caused by blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the extremities, head, or major organs)
  • Blindness or other vision problems triggered by bleeding or broken blood vessels in the eyes

Besides, high-pressure levels in the kidneys’ vessels can lead to something called chronic kidney disease (CKD). Kidneys affected by CKD can no longer fulfill their function of cleansing toxins and excess fluids from the bloodstream. Over time, a worsening of this condition can lead to the onset of outright kidney failure.

There is often a debate on the risk associated with having a particular kind of alcoholic drink and measuring health problems that may ensue. It is pertinent to note that any drink containing any measure of ethanol is an alcoholic drink. It so has a significant risk of causing hypertension depending on the frequency of use. The frequency of drinking leads to hypertension as this kind of drinking creates a sustained form of high BP, which is exactly the criteria for the development of alcohol blood pressure.

Alcohol-Related Hypertension Treatment

Treating excessive alcohol and hypertension begins with reducing one’s drinking habit. Quitting ethanol drinks completely is best for reducing high BP; however, some individuals may struggle with this new adjustment. Having a drink once in a while with a good diet can greatly assist in treating hypertension. Men and women have their recommended ethanol limit. Men below the age of 65 should moderate at two drinks daily or less, I who are older than 65 should limit at one drink daily with sober days, while women of any age limit should not exceed one drink per day with sober days in a week while maintaining a healthy diet.

The option of abruptly quitting drinking due to the risk of hypertension is different for individuals who have been diagnosed with an ethanol use disorder (AUD). These individuals face compulsions and emotional distress, which leads to a significant increase in their BP when they try to quit drinking abruptly. When the level of dependence is critical, and HBP symptoms felt even when one stays away from drinking for a while, they are referred to as alcohol withdrawal.

Does Alcohol Lower Blood Pressure?

Numerous studies have shown that light-to-moderate ethanol consumption is linked to a reduced risk for heart disease over the years. This fact raises the question of whether ethanol lowers BP in at least some circumstances. The answer is: not to any reliable degree. Researchers report that any potential protective benefit from light or moderate drinking likely comes from reduced levels of circulating “bad” cholesterol, not blood pressure-related changes. Also, for many people, ethanol may not play a significant role in lowering the odds of heart disease. Instead, the benefit may come from other lifestyle factors such as dietary alterations and increased exercise involvement.

There is so much information on reducing high BP that certain information can often be misconstrued for another. Does alcohol lower blood pressure? Light to moderate drinking has been shown to reduce, but not prevent, high BP slightly, around 2-4 mmHg, especially in women. This is not enough evidence to conclude that drinking lowers BP and experts warn against using drinking as a BP treatment regimen. There is still ongoing research on alcohol and blood pressure intricacies to fully understand how it works.

African Man Measuring Blood Pressure at home.

Recap: How Does Alcohol Affect Arterial Pressure?

Can drinking cause high BP? The answer to this question is clearly yes. Heavy drinking can lead to an average pressure increase of 5 to 10 mmHg. An increase of this size can make all the difference between regular readings and the onset of hypertension. While alcohol and hypertension remain a thriving societal health problem with many curative initiatives, it might remain an ongoing health threat for recurrent ethanol bingers, as well as anyone suffering from the widespread effects of alcoholism.

It’s important to note that heavy drinkers who quit “cold turkey” rather than seeking help from qualified professionals can increase their short-term hypertension risks. That’s true because abrupt discontinuation of drinking in an addicted person can lead to severe, temporary spikes in the amount of systolic and diastolic force exerted on the arteries. Another warning focuses on the connection between BP meds and alcohol. Evidence shows that these medications may not provide substantial protective benefits for people affected by alcoholism.

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: October 26th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.

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