Many people are familiar with the idea that alcohol thins the blood, but what does this mean exactly? And what impact can it have on your body and your overall health? Before we address the effects of alcohol on your blood, it’s helpful to first understand the nature of blood itself.
Blood consists of liquid part, called plasma, and a number of different cell types that each performs a specific role within the circulatory system:
- Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, are responsible for providing oxygen to the tissues of the body
- White blood cells, or leukocytes, are a key element in the immune system and play a critical role in defending the body against infection
- Platelets are small, colorless cells that allow your blood to clot following injury
Thin blood is the result of a reduction in the number of platelets — a condition known as thrombocytopenia. In a normal individual, the concentration of platelets can be anywhere from 150,000 to 450,000 per microliter of blood, but in people with thrombocytopenia, this drops below 150,000.
Small reductions in the platelet count are not usually serious, but more substantial losses can pose a significant risk to health. This can be the case when your bone marrow produces insufficient platelets, or when platelet production is adequate but they don’t survive in the body.
Sometimes when it comes to causes of diminished platelet activity, nutritional deficiency is a common factor. Your body needs sufficient amounts of iron, folate, and vitamin B12 to produce platelets — and these elements are ordinarily provided by a healthy, varied diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and high-quality proteins.
This helps us understand why alcohol consumption is often associated with thrombocytopenia. Alcohol impairs the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12, which then has an impact on platelet production.
So, alcohol reduces your platelet count by inhibiting the ability of your body to absorb vitamin B12, which is essential for normal platelet production. Since platelets are involved in clot formation, one of the consequences of this is that it reduces the ability of your blood to produce clots. This can expose the body to serious general health risks.
After an injury to the body — whether externally or internally — platelets in the blood form a clump at the site of the trauma and release proteins called clotting factors, which encourage the plugging of the hole. Blood clotting following injury is critical to good health.
Clotting of the blood is called coagulation, and the clot itself is a thrombus. It can be either free-floating (moving freely in the bloodstream, which may cause pulmonary embolism) or non-floating (not moving, stuck to the internal surface of the blood vessel). In some cases, clotting can actually pose a threat to health. If a thrombus forms in the vein that carries the blood to the heart or in the artery that carries the blood to the brain, it can interfere with normal blood supply to those tissues and cause a heart attack or stroke.
People at risk of heart attack or stroke are commonly prescribed anticoagulants, antiaggregants, or antiplatelet drugs. Anticoagulants — sometimes known as blood thinners — are medications that delay the clotting of blood. Examples include heparin, warfarin, and others. Antiplatelet drugs keep blood clots from forming by preventing blood platelets from sticking together, like Aspirin and P2Y12 inhibitors (clopidogrel, prasugrel, ticagrelor). But patients who are consuming these medications need to be careful about taking other drugs.
Since alcohol has a blood-thinning effect, people sometimes wonder if alcoholic drinks can be a substitute for a prescribed blood thinner. The short answer to this is ‘no.’ Blood-thinning drugs are manufactured according to strict guidelines and have been expertly formulated to provide the ideal treatment for a patient’s medical condition. These features cannot be replicated by improvised consumption of alcoholic beverages.
In addition to exposing you to greater risk of bleeding in the brain, heavy alcohol consumption is associated with a number of other health risks, including but not limited to:
- Liver disease
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, liver, colon, and esophagus
- Miscarriage and birth defect when consumed during pregnancy
In summary, you should not consider alcohol to be a safe or reliable substitute for physician-prescribed blood-thinning drugs.
Most doctors and healthcare professionals advise using caution when mixing alcohol and blood-thinning medications like warfarin. Since both alcohol and anticoagulant drugs reduce the clotting ability of the blood, consuming them together can magnify their effects and increase your risk of stroke.
In addition to this, alcohol can impair your body’s ability to break down and remove the anticoagulant medication, which can lead to an undesirable and potentially toxic accumulation of the drug in your body.
For these key reasons, many physicians and health experts suggest avoiding alcoholic drinks while taking anticoagulant medication.
Does drinking alcohol on your period make you bleed more?
Given what we’ve already discussed about the effect of alcohol on vitamin B12 absorption and platelet production, it makes sense that alcohol can be responsible for abnormally heavy menstrual flows. If heavy alcohol consumption has caused a vitamin B12 deficiency, you may also find that your gums bleed more readily after brushing or flossing, that everyday cuts take longer to clot, or that you experience more frequent nosebleeds.