How Binge Drinking Leads to Heart Attack

Heart attack from the formation of atherosclerosis (plaque in the arteries) can follow binge drinking. New research supports the notion that how much alcohol we consume is not as important as our pattern of alcohol consumption. Binge drinking might be an important factor that can lead to heart attack. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as five or more drinks for men, and four or more drinks for women, in two hours.

The current research discovered a direct association between irregular drinking habits and heart attack. Regular alcohol consumption has shown to be beneficial to health (e.g. red wine). Binge drinking can lead to dangerous changes in the lining of the blood vessels that promote inflammation, leading to plaque formation and heart attack.

Research shows that blood cells attack fatty plaque and other foreign substances that inflame the lining of the arteries. When inflammation occurs in the blood vessels, an immune response follows that causes clotting in the arteries. When a clot breaks off and travels, heart attack can occur suddenly.

The new study shows that binge drinking causes monocytes, a type of blood cell, to attack the blood vessel when ethanol enters the bloodstream. Monocytes play an important role in attacking foreign substances in the body.

The by-product of ethanol is acetaldehyde. Monocytes attack acetaldehyde and stick in the blood vessels, sensing acetaldehyde as a foreign substance. The result can cause a blood clot in the arteries that can lead to heart attack.

Acetaldehyde remains in the body for hours after binge drinking. John Cullen, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center led the current study. According to Cullen, “One of our experiments found that acetaldehyde, at levels found in the blood after binge drinking, increased the number of monocytes that can adhere to cells lining blood vessels by 700 percent.”

The study authors explain how monocytes in the bloodstream circulate freely, looking for injury, such as atherosclerotic areas in the lining of the blood vessel. Acetaldehyde in the bloodstream is found to produce a cascade of events that attracts monocytes. CCR2, P-selectin, and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), are proteins in the body previously implicated in contributing to heart attacks. CCR2 is found on the surface of monocytes. Acetaldehyde increases the amount of CCR2 found in monocytes two-fold, according to the study results. P- selectin also increased on the surface of blood cells in the presence of acetaldehyde, again forming an attraction for monocytes. TNFα (tumor necrosis factor alpha), a genetically driven protein that produces inflammation in the body, more than doubled when acetaldehyde entered the bloodstream.

Dr. Cullen concluded, “We hypothesize that, following alcohol consumption, there is a delicate equilibrium between the effects of alcohol and its metabolite, acetaldehyde, on blood vessel walls. Further studies are underway to confirm that these actions of acetaldehyde underlie, in part, the detrimental effects of binge drinking on cardiovascular disease”. The new study defines exactly how binge drinking can increase our risk of heart attack.

Kathleen Blanchard, RN

Researchers Identify How Binge Drinking May Drive Heart Disease