Does Alcohol Raise Cholesterol?
Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights
Red wine has always been popular, but evidence of its health benefits seems to have given it the fast pass from occasional indulgence to beneficial health tonic. Whether this evidence is scientific or anecdotal matters little to most, because who doesn’t enjoy a great glass of California red?
If you’re searching for ways to protect your heart, you may have heard that alcohol is actually good for promoting heart health. If that sounds a little too good to be true, you’re onto something.
Together, we’ll talk about how cholesterol affects your heart, the role that alcohol plays in raising (and lowering) cholesterol, and how you can support healthy cholesterol with (or without) a daily drink.
What Should I Know About Cholesterol?
Cholesterol gets a bad rap, but it’s actually a vital molecule that your body needs. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that helps create hormones, synthesize vitamin D, and even create the protective cell membranes for every cell in your body.
How the Body Gets Cholesterol
Cholesterol comes from two sources: the foods we eat and our livers. Food contains cholesterol and fats that are broken down in our blood.
Some of the carbohydrates and proteins we eat are sent to the liver, where they are converted to triglyceride molecules. These combine with apolipoprotein and cholesterol and are converted into very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), which the liver then sends into the bloodstream. A higher level of triglycerides in the blood is associated with unhealthy cholesterol levels, which is why you find this reading on your yearly lipid panel.
The liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs for functioning. Any cholesterol we get from our food is essentially “extra.” Healthy total cholesterol, which measures several different types of cholesterol in your blood, should be under 200 mg/dL, according to general recommendations.
What Happens When Cholesterol Is Too High?
High cholesterol usually happens when your “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) number is too high, and your “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol) number is too low. When your cholesterol levels are not within a healthy range, your risk for developing heart disease and stroke increases.
The longer your cholesterol numbers remain unhealthy, the greater risk you pose to your heart health. Because heart disease is the number one killer of Americans, it’s no surprise that finding ways to care for our hearts and lower our risk of developing heart-related problems is so well-researched.
How Are Alcohol and Cholesterol Related?
The idea that alcohol is “good” for your heart is a popular opinion, especially when sipping on a cabernet. We say, let the research do the talking. New research has led the World Health Organization to change their recommendations for alcohol consumption.
Red Wine: Hero or Hype?
Of all alcoholic beverages studied, red wine seems to be the champion in terms of purported heart health benefits. It’s true, there are some distinct health benefits that accompany moderate red wine consumption:
Red wine may raise HDL cholesterol. Studies do show that drinking alcohol, especially red wine, in small, controlled amounts, can increase the rate of apolipoprotein transport, which happens in the liver. The result of this process is a spike in good HDL cholesterol, which helps lower the bad LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream.
Red wine contains resveratrol. This naturally occurring plant polyphenol is an antioxidant. Antioxidants help protect your body against oxidative stress that can damage tissues. As such, the resveratrol in red wine may help protect your arteries against the buildup of plaque by keeping them supported and healthy.
Cheers to the good news! Science supports some impressive health benefits associated with wine drinking. However, there’s still a little bit of a rain cloud despite the apparent silver lining. The health benefits of drinking red wine could essentially be obtained from drinking grape juice, and the potential health problems associated with regular alcohol consumption, including its effect on cholesterol levels, are worth noting.
Alcohol’s Negative Heart Impact
Even though alcohol does have some health benefits, we have to admit they’re limited. Further, taking up wine drinking to support your heart health isn’t recommended by most doctors. As researchers have further studied the impact of alcohol use, they’ve discovered that the negative impacts of alcohol on your health do not outweigh the limited health benefits. Alcohol, after all, has been classified as a class 1 carcinogen for decades.
In fact, the current studies on alcohol consumption available aren’t able to give us a safe limit that tells us when the carcinogenic effects of alcohol begin to present negative effects in our bodies. There are also no studies available that suggest that the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption (as they pertain to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) are enough to outweigh the risk factors that moderate amounts of alcohol place on the body in terms of associated cancers.
If you’re concerned that decreasing your alcohol intake could impact your HDL levels, you needn’t worry.
You can get the same HDL raising effects without drinking alcohol through:
- Losing excess weight
- Quitting smoking if you are a smoker
- Choosing heart-healthy fats
- Eating a balanced diet
These means of raising your HDL cholesterol are better for your overall health and won’t pack on additional calories like the sugar from alcohol will.
Additionally, you can get a healthy helping of resveratrol from the skins of grapes and blueberries.
Too much alcohol is associated with an increase in heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure, and that is reason enough to opt for other ways to support your heart health. It’s also directly associated with certain types of cancer, including bowel and breast cancers.
To top it all off, according to the American Heart Association, no data has directly linked alcohol consumption and better heart health.
Alcohol and Cholesterol: The Bad News
Even though alcohol may raise your HDL cholesterol level, alcohol’s effect on cholesterol levels isn’t that cut and dry.
Alcohol is broken down in the liver and repackaged as triglycerides (fats) and cholesterol. It is then sent back to your bloodstream. This means the more alcohol you drink, the more triglycerides and cholesterol will enter your bloodstream.
There’s a delicate balance between drinking a small amount of alcohol (the amount that may positively impact your cholesterol) and drinking more than needed and causing your cholesterol and blood triglycerides to rise. For decades, the daily recommended allowance was no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, but with the latest research, the CDC was prompted to update their guidelines. Now, the CDC recommends that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink or to drink no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men on days when alcohol is consumed. They further recommend that if you are an adult of legal age and do not drink, you should not start drinking.
Additionally, when triglycerides build in the liver, you increase your risk of developing other conditions like fatty liver disease. Too much alcohol can also lead to a high triglyceride level and lower levels of HDL, which can lead to heart disease.
Ultimately, the benefits of drinking alcohol for your heart just don’t outweigh the risks. That’s okay because there are plenty of other ways to support healthy total cholesterol levels, protect yourself against coronary heart disease, and stave off the need for statins without drinking alcohol.
How Can I Support Healthy Cholesterol?
Thankfully, supporting healthy cholesterol numbers isn’t rocket science, but there is definitely some strong science behind the methods that work.
Two of the key factors associated with high cholesterol are obesity and lack of activity. That means getting your body moving by increasing your exercise can help you feel better and lower your cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of heart-pumping exercise to support your heart health and reduce your risk of developing cholesterol-related illnesses like atherosclerosis, a disease that causes blood vessels to harden. Your 150 minutes should also be supplemented with a few strength-training exercises, which new research shows may be more effective for eliminating adipose tissue than cardiovascular exercise alone.
Eat a Healthy Diet
A balanced diet is one that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and heart-healthy fats. In addition, whole grains can lower your LDL cholesterol number and provide you with plenty of fiber so that you feel full for longer than you would if you consumed refined carbohydrates (like sugar).
Including good fats in your diet is also important. Although you’ve probably been told that all fat is bad, science doesn’t support this statement. We now know that not all fat is bad and that even some types of saturated fats are actually good for our bodies and may help reduce our risk of heart disease.
When choosing dietary fats, it’s important to remember that trans fats, in particular, are not good for us. Trans fats are fats that have been processed and turned into solids and added to fried foods, prepackaged meals, and the like. Avoiding trans fats and added sugars are heart-healthy moves. Learning about a new, healthy type of saturated fat is also heart smart.
Consider a Supplement
You’ve probably heard that taking certain supplements, like omega-3, can help support good cholesterol levels. That’s because some omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential.”
For a nutrient to be considered essential, our bodies must need it to thrive. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot make essential nutrients and we must get them from our diets. Surprisingly, only one omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, is considered essential, although the heart benefits of omega-3s are generally attributed to one type of omega-3, EPA.
Fish oil supplements usually contain EPA and DHA, unfortunately they come with a bit of an Achilles heel. First, because omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid (which means it is liquid at room temperature), it’s subject to peroxidation. That means it can go bad, just like cooking oil that’s been on your shelf too long.
At least one in ten fish oil supplements on store shelves may be rancid, which means the supplement will also be rancid inside your body. Studies have shown that taking rancid fish oil could actually be harmful to your cholesterol levels.
Taking too much omega-3 could also lead to thinning of the blood, bruising more easily, and excessive bleeding if an injury were to occur, not to mention the fact that most of these supplements leave you with a very unpleasant fishy aftertaste.
For all its hype, taking a fish oil supplement may not be the best answer, especially in terms of taking care of your cholesterol. Instead, there’s a better way and a better fatty essential acid.
Protect Your Cells
The foundation of our health begins in our cells. That means supporting our cellular health is vitally important for every process in our body.
As we age, our cellular health naturally declines. The protective membranes surrounding our cells begin to weaken, and the mitochondria that fuel our cells begin to slow down. Cells begin losing the ability to communicate with one another as they should. Eventually, some cells check out long before they need to.
How can you protect your cells? C15:0.*
C15:0 and Your Cellular Health
Pentadecanoic acid, or “C15:0” for short, is an odd-chain, saturated fatty acid that research supports as the first essential fatty acid to have been discovered since the omegas, over 90 years ago.
How did we go that long without it? We didn’t.
C15:0 is found primarily in whole-fat dairy products. While our circulating levels of C15:0 were once higher, dietary guidelines issued in the 1970s encouraged us to stay away from dietary fats and move towards becoming a fat-free society.
The more recent trend toward plant-based milk replacements (which are completely void of C15:0) has caused our levels of C15:0 to decline further.
The result? We’re experiencing more negative health markers, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity, placing our society at an increased risk for developing heart disease and having a detrimental impact on our healthcare.
How We Know C15:0 Works
C15:0’s ability to benefit our cells and our health was discovered by Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, a veterinary epidemiologist who found that some geriatric dolphins had fewer age-related illnesses than others.
Dr. Venn-Watson found that higher circulating levels of the fatty acid C15:0 were responsible for many of the health benefits seen in the healthiest dolphins. She went further, looking into the health benefits of this molecule in human populations and, three years later, published her findings in Nature's Scientific Reports in 2020. Since that time, more than 80 peer reviewed publications have been published supporting the health benefits of C15:0.
C15:0 works in your cells in several important ways:*
Improved cellular signaling. By activating special receptors called PPARs, C15:0 helps regulate homeostatic processes, including the process involved in supporting heart health by maintaining normal cholesterol levels.
Cell membrane support.Unlike omega-3, C15:0 is a sturdy fatty acid that integrates into cell membranes to keep them strong and protect them against the natural breakdown they experience during aging. Studies support that C15:0 helps strengthen cells by 80%.
Increased mitochondrial function. Sluggish mitochondria get a wake-up call with C15:0. Research shows that C15:0 helps increase mitochondrial function by up to 45%.
More Cellular Energy. Your cells rely on a molecule called ATP for energy. ATP is like energy currency, and your cells need it for cellular functions that power your entire body. In one study, C15:0 helped raise cellular ATP levels by 350%. That’s big news for sluggish cells that could be declining with age.
Regulating Inflammatory Response. The way our body responds to external aggressors is important. An unhealthy inflammatory response underlies many illnesses. C15:0 helps calm and lower pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are associated with cellular aging.
Activating AMPK. An important molecule, AMPK helps clear damaged cells and also regulates functions like glucose uptake and immunity. By activating AMPK, C15:0 helps make sure damaged cells are cleared and helps restore homeostasis to these functions.
The problem is that it’s hard to get enough C15:0 with diet alone — increasing your whole-fat dairy intake would mean extra calories, sugars, and high levels of the "bad," even-chain saturated fats.
That’s why we made fatty15, the once-a-day, one-calorie, pure-powder, vegan-friendly, award-winning C15:0 supplement. No extra sugars, bad fats, or a ton of calories, just pure C15:0.
Raise a Capsule to Your Cellular Health
The research is in. The health benefits we once ascribed to drinking different types of alcohol no longer outweigh what we know about the health risks it can cause. Although alcohol might give you a few health benefits if you drink in moderation, the risks associated with long-term consumption (and overconsumption) make it difficult to suggest that alcohol will actually help you lead a healthier lifestyle.
In addition to improving your diet and exercising more, you can keep your cells supported with fatty15, resulting in a healthier and happier you.* Just one capsule per day can give your cells (and your heart) the chance to age on your terms.*
Eric Venn-Watson M.D.
Senior Scientist, Co-Founder
Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.
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