Binge drinking is a form of excessive, short-term alcohol intake known for its ability to significantly damage health and well-being in a number of ways. In a study published in July 2014 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, a team of Swedish researchers sought to determine if participation in this form of drinking can increase a person’s chances of developing a serious, potentially fatal form of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. These researchers concluded that, while atrial fibrillation risks can go up even in people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol, the danger is clearly greater among binge drinkers.
The classic indication of binge drinking is consuming enough alcohol in a single drinking episode (typically two hours or less) to raise your blood-alcohol level to at least 0.08 percent, the standard measurement for legal drunkenness throughout the U.S. As a rule, men must drink more alcohol than women to reach legal intoxication in this time frame (five or more drinks vs. four or more drinks). Roughly 17 percent of Americans age 18 or older participate in drinking binges an average of once weekly in a given month. These individuals commonly consume far more alcohol than required to reach the lower threshold of drunkenness. Age-wise, binge drinking clusters heavily among young adults, especially people between the ages of 21 and 25 (who have an overall monthly binging participation rate of 45.1 percent).
Known health risks associated with binge drinking include consuming enough alcohol to trigger a possibly lethal case of alcohol poisoning, which not only damages liver and nerve function, but increases the odds of a stroke or some other highly serious form of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease. Binge drinkers also steeply elevate their level of exposure to accidental injuries and acts of physical and sexual assault.
People with atrial fibrillation (AF) have problems with the natural electrical signaling system that originates in the heart’s two upper chambers, known together as the atria. Normally, this system helps ensure that each heartbeat occurs in an orderly fashion and pumps blood efficiently to the body. However, AF creates chaos in the signaling system and makes it impossible for the upper and lower portions of the heart to work well together. Some individuals with atrial fibrillation have no noticeable problems. However, others eventually experience chest pain, develop strokes or go into heart failure. AF can occur continually or intermittently.
Impact of Alcohol Binging
In the study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Karolinska University Hospital used a decade-long project involving 79,019 Swedish adults to explore the link between binge drinking and atrial fibrillation, as well as the link between light or moderate drinking and atrial fibrillation. From 1998 to 2009, 7,245 of these adults experienced short- or long-term symptoms of AF. The researchers examined the weekly drinking behaviors of all the study participants and looked for telltale drinking patterns in the people who developed atrial fibrillation.
The researchers concluded that every drink of alcohol imbibed on a given day increases the odds that atrial fibrillation will occur by roughly 8 percent. This means that even a person who keeps his or her intake at a moderate level (for men, four daily drinks or fewer and 14 weekly drinks or fewer; for women, three daily drinks or fewer and seven weekly drinks or fewer) can substantially increase his or her AF risks. Heavy drinkers, who by definition drink above moderate levels, have even higher risks. Crucially, the researchers concluded that binge drinking, in particular, boosts the odds of developing atrial fibrillation even more, regardless of whether a person keeps his or weekly drinking within moderate levels. The researchers conducted an additional analysis to see if the kind of alcohol you drink matters. They concluded that consumption of beer does not apparently increase AF risks, while consumption of wine or distilled liquor does increase the risk. Liquor has a greater impact than wine.
The study’s authors note that, compared to the non-alcohol-consuming population, people who drink in moderate amounts experience only a modest increase in their overall atrial fibrillation risks. However, binge drinkers clearly experience a substantial spike in their AF exposure.