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Q: I recently got a lipid panel done at my doc and my triglycerides were really low (32). I’m a 26-year-old female (will be 27 in 2 months) and I am currently an active alcoholic. I am a black woman with a paternal family history of hypertension. Is this normal or related to alcohol consumption? How does overconsumption of alcohol affect the heart exactly?

A: Triglycerides and other types of cholesterol are normally tested to see the amount of fat circulating in the blood.  A lot of people have high levels of triglycerides and “bad cholesterol” (also known as LDL and total cholesterol).  Eating foods with high fat, having certain conditions like diabetes, or taking medications like oral contraceptives can cause high levels of triglycerides. Excessive alcohol use actually increases your triglyceride levels.  If the high levels are not treated, it can cause conditions like heart attacks and strokes.

Lesson: Bring those cholesterol levels down by either eating less fat or exercising.  I know it’s hard to do, but start off with “baby steps” and you will be surprised!

There are a few people who do have low levels of triglycerides. Having problems digesting food can lead to low levels and not having enough fat in your diet can cause this as well. What I have noticed in my practice is that those who consume excessive amounts of alcohol also tend to be deficient in nutrients. I know that I just said excessive alcohol use increases your triglyceride levels, but if you are severely deficient in nutrients, this increased level can still be low.  So, are you substituting drinking for eating? If so, this is a problem.

So how does overconsumption of alcohol affect the heart?  Excessive alcohol causes irregular heartbeats.  Also, years of excessive alcohol use can cause the heart to abnormally grow bigger.  This growth brings about problems in pumping blood in and out of the heart. This can lead to heart failure. People with heart failure have trouble breathing, doing activities, and tend to notice swelling in their feet, ankle, and legs. The good news is if you stop drinking, your heart will try to improve itself and revert back to normal.

How do I overcome excessive alcohol consumption? Well, the first step is always admitting you have a problem.  Try to find out why you drink so much. What is causing you pain?  Could you have anxiety or depression? Sometimes excess alcohol consumption runs in families. Next, I would not try to quit on your own because stopping or quickly reducing the level of alcohol you use can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. So, talk to your doctor and they will try to make things easier for you in your safe recovery.  They can also prescribe medications to help reduce your cravings or ease the withdrawal symptoms.  Counseling with a therapist or your doctor can also help. Participating in social support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is also a great step in recovery. It’s important to stop drinking uncontrollably because it could lead to motor vehicle crashes, suicide, homicide or plain disruptions in your life.

Visit Rethinking Driving: Alcohol and your health or College Drinking – Changing the culture for more information.

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